"Durham judge asks SBI to look for crucial paper" - John Sullivan, News & Observer (August 28, 1999)
A Durham Superior Court judge has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to find out what happened to a key document that disappeared in the case of a man who had his criminal record erased even though he wasn't legally eligible.
Judge David LaBarre said Friday he had called investigators because he is certain a document re-opening the case of Gregory Watts was signed by Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin. But Hardin says he never signed the order, and it is missing from files that only recently have come to light.
"I am concerned with the possibility of tampering or absence of records, so I asked a special prosecutor and the SBI to re-examine the file," LaBarre said Friday. "There is probable cause to indicate documents were added or removed since the previous investigation by the SBI," he said. "They indicated to me that files were missing and only recently were they aware that some were in a vault."
The search for the document is just one part of the SBI's second investigation of the Watts case, which was reopened after The News & Observer raised questions about the way the case was handled by Watts' attorney, J. Wesley Covington, and former Assistant District Attorney Ralph Strickland. Files in the case previously thought destroyed were produced by the clerk's office after the questions were raised.
Motions filed in the case said he was 17 when Watts committed all the crimes, and three times Durham judges approved the expunction. But each time, the SBI later denied them, saying Watts was too old.
Because of a glitch in the way expunctions are done in North Carolina, Watts' files were cleared from the court computer system and paper records were removed from the shelves and placed in the county's vault, despite the SBI's findings.
"His record is not expunged by the SBI, but the county believes it is," said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. "That's the glitch, the loophole we want to close."
In the end, the cases were reopened by LaBarre and dismissed. LaBarre said he ordered the cases reopened after he read a document signed by Hardin that said the District Attorney's Office approved the move. But Hardin says LaBarre is wrong.
The file contains two photocopies of a motion signed by Covington asking the court to throw out Watts' convictions, but they are not stamped by the clerk as official court records and don't contain Hardin's signature.
LaBarre said that is inconsistent with his recollection of the case.
"The motion purported to show the signature of James E. Hardin Jr., the DA of Durham County," LaBarre said. "I suppose there is the potential that an unauthorized signature was presented to this court," meaning Hardin's signature might have been forged.
Documents in the file revealed another problem: Strickland dismissed Watts' charges two days before LaBarre signed the order reopening the cases, a move LaBarre said could make the dismissals invalid.
Hardin said in a letter last week that he had reviewed the files in the case and found no problem with the dismissal and that Strickland had full authority to dismiss the cases.
Hudson, who signed two orders in the Watts case, told the state Attorney General's Office last week that he might have been misled about Watts' age.