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Darts to DA’s Office jeopardizing Baker case

December 6, 2010

Darts to a management mistake that could, as a motion by the 25th Judicial District Attorney’s office states, “jeopardize the right of the state to prosecute a defendant” in the death of Zahra Baker.
While prosectors also believed opening police search warrants could “undermine” police investigations in the Baker case, District Attorney Jay Gaither’s office failed to do the work required to keep those files confidential.
And, as a 30-day seal on those court files expired this week, instead of ensuring that prosecutors had every base covered, Gaither lamented state laws that “burden” his office as it attempts to prosecute criminals like those who dismember a 10-year-old child.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Nathan Poovey unsealed search warrants used by police investigating Zahra’s murder. The move came 30 days after many of those court files were sealed following motions by the District Attorney’s Office to keep that information confidential. Gaither’s office seemed dedicated to protecting the integrity of the investigation and any looming court trial.
But, as Poovey points out in his order, under N.C. law, “search warrants are public records.” In his order, Poovey also cites previous N.C. court rulings which state that delaying the release of court documents “unduly minimizes ... the value of ‘openness’ itself, a value which is threatened whenever immediate access is ... denied.”
In spite of those legal precedents, the District Attorney’s Office had ample opportunity to keep warrants sealed and secret.
“Since the sealing orders were signed, the State did not file a motion for their extension,” Poovey said in his order, adding, “On Monday Nov. 29, after media organizations renewed their request for copies of warrants that were more than 30 days old, the State filed a motion to extend the sealing orders.”
Simply put, Gaither and his office had 30 days to file a motion to keep warrants sealed, but failed to do so until it was too late.
Even upon filing a motion as orders to seal the warrants expired, the District Attorney’s Office was given an opportunity to keep the documents confidential.
Again, Gaither’s office failed.
“The court offered to hear the matter on Monday, Nov. 29, but the state declined and indicated they would not be prepared to have it heard until the week of Dec. 13,” Poovey’s order stated.
Not only did prosecutors drop the ball in terms of filing motions to keep search warrants secret, when given the opportunity for a last-minute reprieve, Gaither and his office admitted they were unprepared to argue their case.
Facing one of the most high-profile murder cases of this century — a case involving the alleged murder and brutal treatment of an innocent child — District Attorney Jay Gaither and his office demonstrated that they are unprepared to complete court actions necessary to protecting the integrity of this case and the ongoing investigation.
Gaither is prepared, it seems, to make excuses.
After Poovey ordered search warrants unsealed, Gaither told Hickory Daily Record that the court “came down on the side of the media,” which is true. However, Poovey didn’t just “come down” on the side of the media, he ruled in favor of legal precedent in North Carolina, precedent with which, based on its failure to file a motion in a timely manner, the District Attorney’s Office seems to be unfamiliar.
Conversely, Gaither and his office are familiar with state and federal court rulings, which, according to the district attorney’s letter to area media outlets, “both protect rights and improve criminal prosecutions.” Yet, he calls rulings like those requiring prosecutors to provide in-person court testimony from State Bureau of Investigation analysts an “added burden.”
Likewise, Gaither said his office must do “more work” because of legislation requiring prosecutors to provide defense attorneys with information related to evidence collected during the investigation of a case.
Add the state’s Racial Justice Act — which requires Gaither’s office to re-examine current and old homicide investigations to make sure prosecutions are not race-based — and the district attorney seems to be preparing a lengthy list of rationales for why his office could fail to effectively achieve convictions, including court action related to the Baker case.
Rather than preparing excuses and attempting to shift blame for the mismanagement and lack of preparation apparent in the District Attorney’s Office, it is time for Gaither to accept responsibility for the failures of his office. It is time for Catawba County’s district attorney to prove that, in addition to removing habitual felons from the streets and enacting other effective programs that serve Catawba County well, Gaither and his office are capable of effectively securing convictions in the region’s high-profile murder cases. So far, that hasn’t happened.

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