Chuck Williams: Could 'Cold Justice' end up being unjust?

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 7, 2014 

The Columbus Police Department’s job — a fairly simple job on the surface — is to solve crimes.

If it were only that easy.

One of those cases that has proved difficult is the March 8, 2004, homicide of auto repair shop owner William “Kirby” Smith Jr. It took 10 years for police to arrest Smith’s estranged wife Rebecca Smith Haynie and her then-lover, Donald Keith Phillips. That happened in early June.

Haynie and Phillips had been suspects since the early stages of the investigation. Their arrests came after “Cold Justice,” a TNT reality television series, took an interest in Smith’s death.

“Cold Justice” stars Yolanda McClary and Kelly Siegler were invited to join the investigation by CPD Sgt. Randy Long.

Fine.

Use any means necessary to bring those accused of murder to justice. Most of us don’t want people capable of cold-blooded murder walking free among us.

Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren calls the “Cold Justice” role in the investigation unique. But Boren, who was a top-notch homicide investigator during his climb to the chief’s office, issues this disclaimer.

“The evidence of this case will first be presented to a grand jury in Muscogee County as whether or not they should be tried,” Boren said Monday. “If it is tried, it will then be left up to a jury of their peers to determine whether or not they are innocent or guilty of the charges — and not a TV show.”

That is as it should be, but here is the catch — and it is a big one.

The “Cold Justice” episode on the Smith homicide is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Friday on TNT. This case has yet to be presented to a grand jury, and it won’t happen this week, according to District Attorney Julia Slater. In fact, Slater said Monday, the complete case file is not in her office.

So, a national television audience will see many of the “facts” in this case before the grand jury does.

That makes little to no sense.

And I understand there is a perceived hypocrisy in my argument. This newspaper reports about criminal cases before a grand jury or a Superior Court jury gets the case.

“I don’t see that there is a big difference in this and the Ledger-Enquirer or another media outlet covering a case before a jury trial,” Slater said.

Not exactly.

Here’s the difference, folks. Ledger-Enquirer reporters don’t sit down with cops and help build the case. This a different animal. McClary and Siegler came to Columbus and sat down with detectives to review evidence. They worked with police to put fresh eyes on evidence that was a decade old.

And here is another thing to think about: Homicide detectives usually testify during a trial. McClary and Siegler are potential, if not probable, witnesses.

There is no doubt defense attorneys are going to want to know their role in the investigation.

But it should make for compelling television. And the prosecution of Haynie and Phillips is consistent with the way Slater has operated her office since 2009. She has tackled difficult cold cases with varying degrees of success.

When her predecessors would not touch the Michael Curry ax murder case for nearly a quarter of a century, she did. Curry is now serving life in prison for killing his wife and child.

Her office tried Kareem Lane in 2012 for the murder of former Muscogee County School Superintendent Jim Burns. The jury was hung and the case is scheduled to be tried again this summer.

Because of the “Cold Justice” involvement, this one has a different feel.

The evidence at a Recorder’s Court hearing for Haynie and Phillips was circumstantial.

If you know anything about court, circumstantial cases are not slam dunks.

That is even more reason to use caution in airing a reality television show that points to people as the killers before a local grand jury has reviewed the evidence.

Can you say, “Slippery slope?”

Chuck Williams, senior reporter, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

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