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ASHEVILLE — One chapter in a tangled story that rocked the local criminal justice system finally came to a close today as a federal judge sentenced former Asheville Police Department evidence room manager Lee Smith to 10 months in prison followed by a year’s probation for stealing drugs from the evidence room.
And on Thursday, the evidence room audit, which Carolina Public Press and other news media outlets sued for, should finally be released.
Handing down the sentence — at the harsher end of the recommended federal guidelines — District Judge Martin Reidinger said Smith’s actions had “undermined the integrity of the criminal justice system” and that “the gravity of this crime” called for a sentence that would serve as a deterrent and help restore the public’s trust.
“Justice has been denied,” Reidinger said, referring to the cases thrown into doubt by the missing evidence.
Smith, who had worked in the evidence room for 20 years, resigned in February 2011 shortly after he was suspended by the APD after testing positive on a drug test.
In the ensuing months, surveys of sensitive items in the evidence room indicated that some quantities of firearms, drugs and money were missing. Buncombe District Attorney Ron Moore ordered the room sealed, and the State Bureau of Investigation, aided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, launched a probe.
In March 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Charlotte office announced it had secured a guilty plea from Smith who confessed he stole between $10,000 and $30,000 of drug evidence. The plea announcement made no mention of the missing money and guns.
According to federal prosecutors, Smith was implicated by his fingerprints which were found inside the adhesive tape of what were supposed to have been sealed drug envelopes.
Mercy or justice
Despite his admitted conduct, however, defense attorney Sean Devereux asked Reidinger to take into account Smith’s previously exemplary record of public service.
For 20 years, Devereux said, Smith was devoted to public service and was “the gold standard of evidence” for the local justice system. But in late 2010 as he faced increasing pain for a medical condition, he began to steal prescription drugs from the evidence room and eventually took some marijuana as well. Even during this time, he said, Smith was “deeply ashamed” of his actions and eventually ended up destroying most of the drugs he’d taken.
These drugs, the attorney claimed, were from cases that Smith believed were already closed. However, eventually he took drugs from a case that had simply been reclassified. When prosecutors and defense attorneys went to look for those drugs in April 2012, they couldn’t find them, triggering a wider investigation and the shutdown of the evidence room.
Federal guidelines called for six to 12 months in prison. Devereux asked Reidinger to instead let Smith serve his sentence on probation. He also noted that “not every problem in that evidence room was attributable to Lee Smith,” citing issues with “too much stuff in too small a space” and an inadequate budget.
In a brief statement, Smith was contrite.
“I am so very sorry for what brought us here today,” he told Reidinger.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards said the consequences of Smith’s actions outweighed his former conduct or his regrets. While a pharmacy clerk who stole prescription drugs might face the same charge, Edwards asserted that Smith’s conduct did a great deal more damage as it shook the public’s faith in a major part of the justice system. Edwards noted the “amazingly sloppy, haphazard way” evidence was organized and the need to shut down the evidence room to audit it had thrown many cases into doubt.
“The consequences were very, very serious,” he said. “This has caused problems with all kinds of cases” far beyond those where Smith had actually taken drug evidence.
Outgoing Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore also spoke, backing the government’s call for a stiffer penalty.
“We had to let criminals out of jail,” Moore said. “It was a huge hit to the morale of law enforcement and the morale of prosecutors.”
In the end, Reidinger found the government’s argument about the damage done persuasive, though he expressed his hope that Smith would make “something positive” out of the experience.
Both Edwards and Devereux pointed out that Smith was only being convicted on the issue of the missing drugs. In Edwards’ words, “we can’t go beyond where the evidence takes us,” and the evidence only linked Smith to missing drugs during one specific time period.
Devereux also said “there’s far more smoke than fire” when it came to the extent of the missing evidence, specifically that many of the guns and valuables were misfiled rather than gone entirely. Despite the temptation of someone facing charges to try to implicate others to lighten their own sentence, Devereux said that Smith was careful to emphasize that he had acted alone.
Last year, the APD hired a new evidence manager, Tim Scapin, who has instituted a series of safeguards intended to thwart similar attempts to steal evidence.
Talking to Carolina Public Press after the sentencing, Devereux said the situation is “sad,” but that he understood the reason for Reidinger’s verdict because Smith’s actions “called into question the integrity of the criminal justice system.” He also praised Moore, saying his office had “showed considerable restraint, because this wasn’t really a DA’s office problem” and that he’d taken some of what Devereux feels are some unfair political attacks over the issue.
Audit finally will be released
Just as it’s taken years for Smith to reach sentencing, the release of the detailed audit of the evidence room has also proven a long and winding road. Local media have long sought the audit, even suing Moore’s office for its release.
Moore previously said he would only release the audit after sentencing was complete. Speaking briefly to reporters, Moore said the audit finally will be made public Thursday afternoon. He also said he will deliver a copy to the city of Asheville. While he noted in his remarks to Reidinger that “I’m glad this day is finally here,” Moore declined to comment on the matter, or the sentence, further.
The audit was commissioned by Asheville City Council in April 2011, at Moore’s request and cost $175,000 in seized drug money. Blueline Systems and Services, an Asheville-based firm headed by former Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office investigator Mike Wright, conducted the extensive inventory of the evidence room’s holdings.
Blueline completed the audit in January 2012 and delivered it to Moore. The following July, Wright briefed an open session of Asheville City Council on what he’d learned.
Wright described an evidence room in massive disarray, with items poorly organized and hard to find, and a broken filing system for basic records, prompting then-Mayor Terry Bellamy to say, “This situation was horrendous.”
Meanwhile, Moore rebuffed media requests to see the audit, insisting that the information in it could impede the investigation and potential prosecution of whomever stole from the evidence room.
In June 2012, Carolina Public Press, along with the Citizen-Times, Mountain Xpress, WCQS and WLOS jointly filed a lawsuit in an effort to prompt the audit’s release. The suit targeted Moore and the city of Asheville and argued that the document was a public record. Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts ultimately dismissed the complaints, without further comment.
Now, the public may finally get to see what the audit found.
Investigations and Open Government Editor Jon Elliston contributed to this report.