DA, State Attorneys Discuss Botched Indictment in Teen's Slaying
Posted December 13, 2006 12:54 p.m. EST
Updated December 14, 2006 1:41 a.m. EST
Cpl. Christopher Long was indicted Monday on a charge of second-degree murder in connection with the Dec. 1 death of Peyton Strickland. But a judge dismissed the charge Tuesday after the foreman of the grand jury said he checked the wrong box on the indictment form and that members of the grand jury didn't find enough evidence to charge Long with murder.
Strickland, 18, a Cape Fear Community College student from Durham, was shot to death at his Wilmington home by deputies serving arrest and search warrants. Strickland and two friends were charged with assaulting a University of North Carolina at Wilmington student last month and stealing two PlayStation 3 consoles from him.
UNC-W police asked for support from the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office during the arrests of the suspects in the case because of the potential that they were armed and dangerous, authorities said. Strickland had an earlier arrest on a felony assault charge.
Nine heavily armed deputies accompanied UNC-W police to Strickland's home to serve the warrants. Three deputies fired shots into the home, and evidence showed some shots were fired before Strickland opened the door.
Long, 34, told investigators he mistook the sound of a battering ram officers were used to break open the front door to the house as gunfire.
Strickland, who was unarmed, died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Long was fired by the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office a week after the shooting.
The grand jury foreman didn't tell a judge he mismarked Long's indictment sheet until 1:30 p.m. Tuesday -- nearly 24 hours after authorities announced the murder charge against the former deputy.
Even before the clerical error, the grand jury had questions about the case.
One member told WRAL that he thought the jury foreman asked the judge if they could consider a lesser charge and the judge said they couldn't. Another member said she thought the jury foreman asked only for clarification on the second-degree murder charge.
But state law does allow grand juries to consider lesser offenses in handing down indictments, said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who isn't involved with the case. It also allows authorities to bring the case back to another grand jury on the same charge or a lesser charge.
"If there was additional evidence that was gathered or if the grand jury didn't understand the ability to ask for a different charge, those would certainly be things you could take into consideration," Willoughby said.
The jury foreman and the judge declined to comment Wednesday.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David arrived in Raleigh Wednesday morning to consult with officials from the Special Prosecution Section of the Attorney General's Office about what happened with the grand jury in the case.
There is no case law that anyone has found dealing with what to do if a grand jury makes such a mistake, and David said he's never dealt with a similar issue before.
"As a trial lawyer, you have to expect the unexpected. I've learned that over the last 10 years that you have to just be prepared for anything in a human system," he said.
Willoughby and defense attorneys also said they had never heard of anything like this happening before.
"I've been a defense attorney for 30 years, and I've never heard of this in any county in the state. It's just mind-boggling," defense attorney Bob Hensley said.
Attorneys pointed out that the grand jury members had been hearing cases since July and should have understood the process.
"They knew what to do. It was done totally incorrectly on a very serious charge, and nobody notified the (district attorney) until a day or day and half later. That's just totally strange," Hensley said.
"Grand jurors are ordinary citizens, and it's quite possible they could make a mistake, just like ordinary citizens," Willoughby said. "It's very unusual, and it's sad it was in such a tragic situation."
David, who is expected to announce Thursday how he will proceed in the case, said he thought the staff of the Attorney General's Office would be the best people to seek advice from because they have been consulted in this case from the beginning.
"I'm still involving the attorney general at this stage in terms of where to go next in light of the recent developments. We are going to review all avalable options on how to proceed. I am committed to following the law in this case and seeing the process through."