A confessed serial child molester's indictment in the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of a 12-year-old girl was dismissed Monday.
And her family may never see justice done after the prosecutors handling the case made some severe missteps.
The Supreme Court of Georgia dismissed the charges against Mr. Bobby Lavon Buckner, saying prosecutors violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial.
As best stated by the United States Supreme Court, the consequence for the violation of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial…means ‘that a defendant who may be guilty of a serious crime will go free, without having been tried," Chatham Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann wrote in her 36-page order, according to the top court's opinion. "'Nonetheless, ‘it is the only possible remedy allowed under the law.'"
The following details were obtained from court documents:
Ashleigh Moore, a seventh-grade honor student at DeRenne Middle School, disappeared from her home in the early morning hours of April 18, 2003.
Mr. Buckner, her mother’s live-in boyfriend, was arrested the next day after law enforcement officers learned he had been alone with Ashleigh and two other children, in violation of his probation.
He later admitted the violation and also pleaded guilty to sex crimes involving four other children.
Mr. Buckner was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison and is currently incarcerated at Calhoun State Prison.
Nearly three weeks after Ashleigh disappeared, her body was found near the Savannah Marriott Riverfront hotel. In December 2007, a grand jury indicted Mr. Buckner for kidnapping, molesting and killing the girl.
Mr. Buckner was re-indicted in May 2009. The following year, the lead prosecutor resigned from the district attorney’s office and the case was re-indicted a third time in March 2011.
The case was set for trial for the 10th time in April 2011, but on that date, prosecutors announced for the first time that the state would seek the death penalty and the case was reassigned to another judge, Freesemann.
As a death penalty case, it was also reassigned to the Capital Defender’s Office and Mr. Buckner was appointed two new attorneys, who subsequently filed more than 140 motions.
Nearly five months later, in August 2011, the state announced it would not seek the death penalty after all and the trial was reset for February 2012.
But in December 2011, Mr. Buckner filed his motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial had been violated.
On May 30, 2012, Judge Freesemann granted his motion and threw out the charges, nearly four and a half years after Mr. Buckner was indicted. Mr. Larry Chisolm, the district attorney at the time, then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
But in today’s opinion, the high court agreed Judge Freesemann, stating that the 53-month delay between indictment and the order granting the motion to dismiss the charges was “uncommonly long.”
The state’s highest court agreed with the trial court’s assessment that someone in the office of the prosecuting attorney ought to have carefully reviewed the case file long before December 2010 and realize that the death penalty perhaps ought to be sought.
“Such thoughts are not unreasonable ones. After all, in a case like this one – involving a convicted sex offender accused of murdering, kidnapping, and sexually abusing a child – the idea that the death penalty perhaps might be warranted is hardly a novel one.”
The high court also found that the evidence supported the trial court’s finding that people had tampered with evidence in Ashleigh’s bedroom and that the delay damaged Mr. Buckner’s ability to defend his case because witnesses could no longer recall the details related to the tampering.
“The trial court concluded that although Buckner’s late assertion of his right to a speedy trial ‘weighs significantly’ against him, the other factors all weigh against the State, and on balance, the relevant factors indicated that Buckner had been denied his right to a speedy trial.”
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