When a judge decided in January to grant a continuance in the trial of Sheriff Timothy L. Daugherty, moving the proceedings to this month, a Times-News editorial expressed hope that the decision, however subject to criticism, would ensure a unclouded judicial hearing for the countyâ€™s top law man, bringing both justice to him and closure for the citizens of Lincoln County.
But as events have unfolded this week, nothing is clear, no decision has been rendered and the activities of Sheriff Daugherty and his closest advisers remain a source of division and doubt about the rule of law.
The dismissal of all charges against the sheriff does not in any way exonerate, clear or acquit him, nor does it provide any shield against the storm that has gathered around his office and his person.
A last-second revelation from former Chief Deputy Barry Taylor, who has already been convicted of obstruction of justice, has thrown the case into confusion. But it has not ended the investigations into his former boss.
When Taylor faced prosecution on a felony obstruction of justice charge last year, his legal team gave surprising permission to prosecutors to look into his personnel file. There they found a document they did not expect to find.
Itâ€™s not clear who created that document, when it was done, or when it arrived in Taylorâ€™s file. But it is clear that the document, bearing what appeared to be the signature of Sheriff Daugherty and dated to February 2007, was highly beneficial to Taylorâ€™s defense.
The jury believed, based on this document, that Taylor was only following Daughertyâ€™s orders when he released a drunk driving suspect who happened to be his girlfriendâ€™s employer. Jurors convicted Taylor of a misdemeanor rather than a felony as a result.
Taylor never testified at that trial. But the sheriff and Lt. Lynn Morrow did. According to their accounts on the witness stand, the documents in Taylorâ€™s file were given to Morrow by the sheriff in February 2007, within days of the drunk driving suspectâ€™s release. Testifying under oath, the sheriff never denied creating the document or the accuracy of the chain of events it described. Instead he attempted to explain earlier contradictory testimony in light of the document.
However, Taylorâ€™s proffer of testimony in recent days indicates the events described in the document are false and this new version of the facts is supported by the absence of any calls between he and the sheriff in the phone records from the crucial time period.
The sheriffâ€™s legal team is now describing the document itself as a fake and questioning whether the signature on it was really the sheriffâ€™s.
Regardless of when the document was created, Taylor says he didnâ€™t talk to the sheriff before releasing the suspect, meaning the document is false. Even so, the sheriff was willing to let the public believe the document was accurate when it was Taylor who was on trial.
The new information from Taylor was a bombshell and it changed the prosecutionâ€™s case. Had the judge granted a new continuance this week, the District Attorneyâ€™s Office could have investigated the new information and brought new superceding indictments based on the new information.
With the new continuance denied, it would not have been ethical for them to proceed with a trial of the sheriff on charges that now appear doubtful. So those charges have been dropped.
What is clear then?
A crime was committed if someone attempted to sidestep justice by writing up a falsified document and placing the sheriffâ€™s signature on that document. Someone had this deceptive piece of paper placed in Taylorâ€™s personnel file.
And two people who were either party to the creation of this document or should have known it was a fraud passed on the opportunity to call it into doubt when they testified about the document during Taylorâ€™s trial. That testimony came from Daugherty and Morrow.
It appears false testimony of a material nature has been given in a court of law.
As things stand, it may be that no new charges will be brought before the Democratic primary in May and it seems unlikely that any trial could be held by that time. The sheriff already has at least one opponent in that contest. Should he survive it, he will face another opponent in November. So any initial decision on his political fate will be in the hands, not of a jury, but of the court of public opinion â€” the voters of Lincoln County.
Perhaps that is as it should be. Criminal courts may eventually take up new charges against Daugherty regardless of what verdict the voters render. But the people will probably have to pass judgment at the ballot box without the benefit of a court decision.
When jurors are impaneled in advance of a trial and before they are released to begin deliberations and arrive at a verdict, the judge discusses the legal ramifications of the case and encourages them to see past diversions that arise during the course of legal argument.
We the people are the jury. And our instructions are this: Be not deceived.