Commentary

An unjust law the legislature should fix right away

In case you missed it recent days, be sure to check out a series of news reports on WRAL about a killing that occurred in Harnett County in 2013. The series, entitled “Presumption of Fear,” documents the untimely death of a young man named Christian Griggs and the fact that North Carolina law is badly flawed when it comes to allowing state investigations of county-level decisions on whether or not to prosecute in such matters. Former TV reporter Jon Camp explained the situation in the following op-ed that was featured by WRAL over the weekend:

Next week a trial will begin that reveals a deeply troubling loophole in North Carolina law.

After a capital crime the only two people who can request an independent state investigation are the sheriff and the district attorney. No one else – not a judge, not another district attorney, not a member of Congress, not the state attorney general – can involve the State Bureau of Investigations. It must be the sheriff and DA form the county where the crime took place.

Let that sink in.

If those two individuals want a case to go away — for any reason — they can shut it down. Not that this is happening but it can.

This loophole should concern all of us but it has made life absolutely hell for the Harnett County family highlighted in WRAL’s series Presumption of Fear.

I’m no longer in the news business but I spent 10 years as ABC11’s lead investigative reporter. I knew the story when it happened. I know it much better now. A few months ago Dolly and Tony Griggs hired me to help.  They asked if I would reach out to my old contacts to try to jumpstart a new investigation by the SBI.

I went to the courthouse in Lillington, got what records I could in the Griggs’ wrongful death civil lawsuit and researched the case. It just didn’t square. Critical questions weren’t asked or answered.

I showed the case to several lawyers, sat down with former contacts in the SBI, talked it over with other district attorneys, and met with both State Auditor Beth Wood and State Attorney General Josh Stein.

Each was sympathetic to the Griggs’ experience and agreed that there is a bigger problem here. But not one felt it was within their jurisdiction to help.

I spent every day of my 20-year reporting career seeking truth. Everything about this tells me we still don’t know what happened that October 2013 morning when Christian Griggs was killed. Even more clear is this: that won’t change unless the SBI gets involved.

It’s imperative that either Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats and/or District Attorney Vernon Stewart formally request an independent SBI investigation. It’s time. The Griggs’ haven’t seen their grand-daughter since the shooting. They haven’t had one restful night’s sleep.

Sheriff Coats. Mr. Stewart. You can change this. Please ask the SBI to open the files and review this case.

North Carolina lawmakers, it’s obvious this glaring loophole in state law must be closed. It simply must not be the case that two individuals hold the only keys to whether a real wrong is righted.

Whether a terrible wrong was done in Harnett County does matter. It matters in the wrongful death lawsuit that gets underway Monday; it matters deeply to the Griggs; and it should matter to the rest of us. The fact is it could happen to any of our families at any time because of this problem with state law.

Let’s work for change. Tell your lawmakers to close this dangerous loophole and tell the sheriff and DA in Harnett County to request an SBI investigation into the killing of Christian Griggs.

Justice deserves an honest shot in North Carolina.

As long as the General Assembly is in town for a lame duck session, it ought to fix this law this absurd loophole.

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