Lost files force coastal Georgia county to drop prosecutions

DARIEN, Ga. - A coastal Georgia district attorney is dismissing felony charges against more than 100 defendants in McIntosh County because investigative files are missing or have been mishandled.

Each of the files contained a letter that explained no documentation had been located to support the prosecution of the defendants, said Chief Deputy William Jennings of the Sheriff's Office.

In some cases, the supporting files had been found but could not be used because they had been removed from the Sheriff's Office, Jennings said.

"Unfortunately, these case files were copies ... ,'' he said. Such a removal violates the chain of custody, contaminates the records and makes them unusable in court, Jennings said.

All but a handful of the dismissed cases originated with the office of former Sheriff Charles "Chunk" Jones. Two of Jones' deputies were arrested in February on charges of theft by taking and violating their oaths of office.

Arrest warrants accuse both of removing original criminal case files from the Sheriff's Office and failing to return them.

Dennis Merriman, a lieutenant under Jones, and Chad Strickland were released on their own recognizance. The case against them is pending, Jennings said.

"These are crimes ranging from drug cases to aggravated assault to child molestation - the whole gamut of crimes,'' Jennings said.

"One was a federal case in which officers found weapons and explosives during a search,'' Jennings said. "The U.S. Attorney's Office had to dismiss it.''

The problem arose shortly after Sheriff Steve Jessup first took office Jan. 1 when Atlantic Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden presented Jessup with a list of cases from previous years for which he had no supporting documentation, Jennings said. Since then, Sheriff's Office staff has dug through every possible file and managed to "salvage'' only a few cases, Jennings said.

Jennings acknowledged that some cases made by Jessup's office had been dismissed but said all were legitimate dismissals. In one, four occupants of a vehicle had been charged with drug possession, Jennings said. After one of the vehicle's occupants acknowledged all the marijuana in the car was his, charges against the others were dismissed, Jennings said.

Thursday morning, McIntosh County Clerk of Court Saundra Goodrich was going through court records, pulling the criminal files of each and inserting the dismissals.

Goodrich said she had 115 of the letters, and Jennings said there could be more.

Jessup said he regrets that the cases are getting dismissed, but that his office had done all it could to find the records.

"It's not my call,'' he said.

Jennings said the victims are getting hit twice.

"They're victims of the original crime, and now they're victimized because the criminals aren't getting prosecuted,'' he said.

terry.dickson@jacksonville.com, (912) 264-0405

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