ATLANTA — Prosecutors did not needlessly delay the trial of a man accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl in 2003, and a trial court judge shouldn’t have dismissed the case, a lawyer for the state argued Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court.
A lower court judge in May dismissed charges against Bobby Lavon Buckner, saying years of delays and vanishing evidence violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Buckner was charged in the slaying of Ashleigh Moore, his girlfriend’s daughter. The girl went missing in April 2003 and her body was found a month later by a man fishing along the Savannah River.
Though Buckner was jailed the day after she vanished and was ultimately sent back to prison for violating his probation from a 1996 child molestation conviction, Savannah authorities waited more than four years before charging him in the girl’s slaying in December 2007.
The delay from the time when Bobby Lavon Buckner was indicted until his trial, which had been scheduled for June, was not uncommonly long, and allegations that evidence was deliberately withheld to harm the defense are baseless, said Diane McLeod with the Chatham County district attorney’s office.
The Buckner case has caused political trouble for Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm, who faces a tough re-election fight Tuesday against his former chief assistant, Meg Daly Heap. Heap, a Republican, has been endorsed by former District Attorney Spencer Lawton, Chisolm’s predecessor and fellow Democrat. As of early October, Heap had also raised more than twice as much campaign cash as Chisolm. A campaign mailer sent out by Heap’s campaign last week attacking Chisolm specifically mentioned the case.
Critics have blamed Chisolm for prosecutorial bungling on the case, though the incumbent insists most of the problems stem from Lawton’s time in office.
The judge who tossed the case noted more than 10 trial dates were set and postponed.
One of the most glaring delays came in March 2011, when prosecutors announced they planned to seek the death penalty against Buckner more than three years after charging him with murder.
The move forced a judge to practically reboot the case, appointing new attorneys with capital trial experience to represent him and handling more than 100 new legal motions.
Prosecutors backed off their plans to seek the death penalty four months later, citing a change in state law that would allow them to seek life without parole for Buckner without a capital trial.
Prosecutors repeatedly said they weren’t ready and kept asking to postpone the case even though there was no evidence of new investigative steps after the first of three indictments, Newell Hamilton, a lawyer for Buckner, argued Monday. He also mentioned the inability to get fingerprint evidence, the destruction of hairs removed from the victim’s body, the inability of witnesses to clearly remember events from so long ago and taped interviews with key witnesses that disappeared.
The loss of evidence happened prior to the 2007 indictment and the lapse of memory is a natural occurrence and doesn’t constitute actual prejudice, McLeod argued.
She also argued that Buckner’s defense has also asked for delays in the case.
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this story.