Courthouse allegations have lingered too long
Sunday, July 16, 2017
It is past time to clear the pall cast over the Pitt County Courthouse by allegations of fraud and forgery involving court officers that have been allowed to linger for nearly three years.
The District Attorney’s office in October of 2014 asked for an investigation into alleged irregularities involving multiple impaired driving cases including many handled by attorney Mark Owens III. Agents from the Greenville office of the State Bureau of Investigation initially reviewed forms asking for continuances signed by now retired District Court Judge James E. Martin.
Clients in the cases in question received an unusually high number of continuances, more than 20 in some instances, dragging the cases out over years. In one of the cases, a woman killed a motorcyclist in a wreck in Wake County while she was awaiting trial in Pitt County. She had been charged with impaired driving here 21 months before the Wake County fatality.
A review of the case documents — more than 80 involved in the investigation are set aside in the clerk of court office — seem to indicate that some of the continuance forms were pre-signed or altered and slipped through the system to secure the trial delays. Questions arose during investigation about other documents that said defendants had completed community service hours, multiple sources at the courthouse said, so they also became part of the investigation.
Reporter Beth Velliquette looked at just one of the documents, which said a client of Owens had completed community service at the Salvation Army. Officials at the Salvation Army keep meticulous records, and when Velliquette checked with them, no record of the client in question could be found. In fact, the employee whos supposed signed the document said she was a manager when the client allegedly performed the community service, but the form listed her as assistant manager, making it clear to her that the document was altered, she said.
The State Bureau of Investigation reported on July 7 that it had completed its review of the case and turned its report over to the state Attorney General’s office for review. That office will decide whether to file charges and prosecute the case.
The Justice Department should give this matter its highest priority. The people indicated have lived under suspicion for too long, and if the evidence does not support charges, they and the public deserve a full explanation to erase any doubt of malfeasance and to restore their reputation.
If the evidence supports charges, on the other hand, they need to be brought sooner than later to halt activity damaging to the credibility of the local court system. At minimum, the allegations call into question the veracity of all cases handled by those involved; meanwhile they continue to pursue more cases.
Further, they raise the specter that more mishandled cases are tucked away in the vast number of files in the stacks of the courthouse and raise doubt among anyone pursuing justice that they will be treated fairly.
The results of this investigation should put those doubts to rest by holding accountable anyone it shows to be complicit in corrupting what should be justice for all.