Winston-Salem council considers intervening on Kalvin Michael Smith's behalf

Councilwoman Molly Leight speaks with the Rev. Kelly Carpenter, co-chair of the Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee, before a meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council Public Safety Committee last night.

Members of the Winston-Salem City Council expressed interest in intervening with the federal courts on behalf of Kalvin Michael Smith during a meeting of the public safety committee on Monday.

Smith was convicted of brutally beating Jill Marker, an employee of the Silk Plant Forest store, in 1995. A review by former FBI Assistant Director Christopher Swecker found that the original investigation “was seriously flawed and woefully incomplete, thus calling into question whether the original jury trial rendered their verdict based on all the relevant and accurate facts of the case.”

“We want justice, that’s all,” said Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who chairs the public safety committee. “And want this community to move forward.”  

Smith was sentenced to almost 29 years in prison in 1997. He is currently incarcerated at Caswell Correctional Center, a medium security prison near Yanceyville. A 2004 investigative series in the Winston-Salem Journal raised serious questions about whether Smith was actually innocent of the crime. The Silk Plant Forest Citizens’ Review Committee, a body empaneled by city council, issued a vote of no confidence in the investigation in 2009, and a majority of committee members signed a statement that they could find no credible evidence that Smith was at the scene of the crime. A review of the investigation by the police department concluded in 2011 “that there are no further viable avenues of investigation and the Silk Plant Forest case should remain closed.” 

In 2009, a superior court judge denied Smith motion for appropriate relief. In January 2010, Smith’s lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition in federal courts seeking to overturn the conviction. The case has been assigned to US District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles. 

Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr. said he is in favor of filing an amicus brief with the court, as did East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery. South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight echoed their sentiments. 

“There comes a time when we must do what is just and right,” North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams said. “We have to use our political will to always right injustice.” 

Montgomery added, “I do not believe the city can use the courts as a scapegoat, to say that because this is no longer in the purview of the city of Winston-Salem to say that we no longer have any influence on the case. District attorneys, prosecutors and defense attorneys use information gathered by police department investigations to support their cases. And if that whole process is flawed it is our responsibility both morally and politically to provide them with the full information.” 

West Ward Councilman Robert Clark said council members should have every relevant document and requested the opportunity to review a videotaped interview with Marker. James Coleman, a Duke University faculty advisor to the Innocence Project, questioned the reliability of Marker’s memory considering that the beating left her with severe brain damage. 

Northwest Ward Councilwoman Wanda Merschel suggested that the council’s closed-session meeting with the city attorney would be valuable, but said that for the most part council members appear to have all the information they need about the case itself. 

“This has gone on far too long, and we cannot move forward until we have some kind of resolution,” she said. 

Council members plan to confer with City Attorney Angela Carmon in closed session about legal options and potential liabilities of intervening in the case when the full council meets next Monday. 

City Manager Lee Garrity told council members on Monday: “The question is, does the council want to weigh in in some fashion?... There are many shortcomings in the original investigation. They were found by internal reviews. They were found by the citizens committee. They were re-confirmed by Mr. Swecker in his review. The case was not handled properly. The case was poorly supervised.” 

Clergy, community leaders and others who have advocated a new trial for Smith, including former Councilman Larry Little, packed the meeting room to urge council members to take action. 

“There was a comment by the city manager as to whether the city council should weigh in on this matter,” said Jet Hollander, a member of the Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee. “I would respectfully suggest that the city of Winston-Salem has weighed in with the trial record that so many people say was faulty. In the words of former Assistant Director Swecker, it was ‘seriously flawed and woefully incomplete’ — that’s a quote. The trial record was produced by an agency of the city of Winston-Salem…. The question is whether you will tell — as Mr. Swecker stated, ‘The full record tells a more complete story of the Silk Plant Forest investigation.’ That’s the question — whether you are going to go to court and say, ‘What was told to you was not the complete truth.’”

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