SAVANNAH, Ga. — A Superior Court judge on Wednesday threw out all charges against a Savannah man accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl in 2003, saying years of delays and vanishing evidence violated the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Quoting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in her order, Judge Penny Haas Freesemann said that dismissing charges against Bobby Lavon Buckner was an extreme measure that means “a defendant who may be guilty of a serious crime will go free” without ever facing trial.
Buckner was charged with the slaying of Ashleigh Moore, his girlfriend’s 12-year-old daughter. The girl went missing in April 2003, and her body was found a month later by a man fishing along the Savannah River.
Though Buckner was jailed the day after Ashleigh disappeared and ultimately was sent back to prison for
violating his probation from a 1996 child molestation conviction, Savannah authorities waited more than four years before charging him in the girl’s slaying in December 2007.
Since then, delays have plagued the case. The judge said more than 10 trial dates were set for Buckner and later postponed. Before her ruling Wednesday, he was scheduled to stand trial June 11.
One of the most glaring delays came in March 2011 when prosecutors announced they planned to seek the death penalty against Buckner more than three years after charging him with murder.
The move forced a judge to practically reboot the case, appointing new attorneys with capital trial experience to represent him and handling more than 100 new legal motions.
Prosecutors backed off their plans to seek the death penalty four months later, citing a change in state law that would allow them to seek life without parole for Buckner without a capital trial.
“The Court simply cannot ignore that this considerable delay, which occurred late in an already significantly delayed case, was apparently altogether unnecessary,” Freesemann said in her ruling.
The judge also noted Buckner’s chance for a fair trial were diminishing over time with “the apparent loss of fingerprint evidence, the destruction of hairs recovered from the alleged victim’s body, and the fading memories of witnesses.”
Taped police interviews with key witnesses had also disappeared, the judge noted.
District Attorney Larry Chisolm had no immediate comment but was working on a statement Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman said. Buckner’s attorney, Newell Hamilton, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
Savannah attorney Michael Schiavone, who defended Buckner until last year when the death penalty became an issue, applauded the judge’s ruling.
“The state’s ploy to use the death penalty to avoid trial, I think that was an intentional decision to delay the case,” Schiavone said. “When they asked for the death penalty, we were days away from trying the case. But that changed the whole complexion of the case.”
As for Buckner, Schiavone said, “From day one, he has been adamant that he was not responsible for this girl’s death.”
The Associated Press could not immediately find working phone numbers for Ashleigh’s parents Wednesday. Two of the girlÂ’s aunts in Savannah did not immediately return a phone message.
Savannah prosecutors will have a shot at appealing the trial judge’s ruling. If her decision to throw out the charges is upheld, prosecutors won’t get to indict Buckner again for the same crime, said Emory University law professor Kay Levine.
“It’s a very high burden to prove. But once you do it you get the whole case dismissed,” Levine said. “And there’s no coming back to it.”
Buckner remains in prison on convictions for statutory rape, sexual exploitation of a child and other charges unrelated to Ashleigh’s slaying. The state Department of Corrections says his sentence won’t expire until April 2016.