It could be the trial of the decade.
Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers were brutally shot to death at close range, from a distance of less than three feet. It was more of an execution, really.
The conviction of accused cop killer Demetrius Montgomery should be a slam dunk for the prosecution, with police work double-checked, the case airtight. Instead, all hell broke loose 48 hours into the trial. An investigator in the case, Arvin Fant, admitted to destroying his notes and plagiarizing other officers' notes to create a false set. The day after, on the witness stand, he changed his story and suggested he might still have the notes after all, perhaps in a box at the office. A search produced no notes.
Fant had interviewed a witness who claimed that another person killed the officers. As the defense pointed out, tapes of those interviews also exist. But Fant likely also communicated with the witness when the tape wasn't turned on. We'll never know because the notes are gone and Fant's credibility is shot. As a result, the judge dropped the possibility of the death penalty.
As Jeff Taylor at Meckdeck.com first reported last week, Fant has done this before. He "lost" notes from two witnesses in an armed robbery case in 2003. The judge in the case wrote that it was "of great concern that the State has apparently lost at least one, if not two, of the statements from witnesses."
The incident should have cost Fant his job, or at least raised serious questions. Yet incredibly, as News 14 Carolina reported, Fant was allowed to work as lead investigator in 17 other homicides and to assist in 81 cases.
How could this be? And how could the police screw up the most important case on the docket in years — the one they most needed, and likely wanted, to get right — this badly? The whole city wants to know.
So far, there has been dead silence from the Charlotte City Council and city management, under whose authority the police department ultimately falls.
That makes sense for now, since launching a major investigation could hamstring the case. But sooner rather than later, city management needs to turn the department upside down. Its credibility is at stake.
Any police department with more than 1,000 employees is bound to have a few bad apples. That can't be prevented. But why weren't they tossed out? The problems with Fant date back to the reign of the former chief, Darrel Stephens. Have they been fixed?
A former homicide detective with the department told me last week that he was sad to see the death penalty thrown out in the case, but was glad that the practices of the department were finally coming to light. The things Fant did have been going on for years, he said. Most people who work in homicide are honorable and do a good job, he claims, but a few detectives in the department have acted as "judge, juror and prosecutor" in cases they oversaw. They are a small minority, he emphasized, but these problems are real.
If they have any integrity, Council members will immediately demand to see Fant's personnel file. When the case ends, they must make the file public so it's clear where the disciplinary process broke down. They should interview Fant's superiors, and then turn the whole mess over to outside investigators.
Unfortunately, we've reached the point where internal investigators can no longer be trusted. That's a painful sentence for me to write, given the wonderful officers and upper management I've worked with over the years. They've done nothing but impress me with their concern for this community and, often times, their compassion for those they arrest.
The Council has a long history of ignoring management lapses at the department with disastrous consequences. Officer Marcus Jackson now stands accused of sexually assaulting six women he stopped while on duty and in uniform. But last year, the Council voted 6-4 against going into closed session to review his personnel record and discuss making it public. Jackson had numerous incidents in his past that should have led to his firing before the attacks on the women, yet he was kept on staff. Why? City Council voted not to find out.
This time, we need answers.