Columbia County authorities recently denied part of a request by The Columbia County News-Times to view records concerning a fatal June 2006 wreck that is the subject of a lawsuit.
The suit was filed against the Columbia County Sheriff's Office in February by the widower of a Martinez woman killed in the wreck. It contends a deputy violated office policy by pursuing two shoplifting suspects.
The lawsuit alleges that the deputy, in accordance with the sheriff's office pursuit policy at the time, should have terminated the chase "given the clear and obvious dangers attendant to the high speed pursuit on the congested and busy roadway."
Lonnie D. Turner, 37, his mother, Margaret Patricia Branton, 63, and Mr. Turner's unborn child were killed June 4, 2006, when Tiara Maria Smith, 22, drove her Ford Explorer through a red light at Washington Road and Bobby Jones Expressway and struck the Chrysler Cirrus that Turner was driving.
Smith and her passenger, Nebula McNeely, 44, both of Augusta, were fleeing the Evans Marshall's store after an attempted shoplifting, according to court records.
Initial police reports of the crash and an indictment two months later conflict on whether Smith's vehicle was being chased by police.
Sheriff's officials quoted after the crash indicated deputies were not chasing Smith's vehicle. The accident report made at the time of the wreck also does not reflect whether a deputy was pursuing Smith's vehicle, and none of the initial charges listed against Smith was related to a chase.
In an August 2006 indictment, however, Smith was charged with fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer, a felony.
Requests made by The News-Times for access to 911 logs or the 911 dispatch audio tapes or transcripts were denied by sheriff's office officials, who contended the tapes and logs are part of an ongoing prosecution against McNeely.
"Under OCGA (Official Code of Georgia) Section (a)(4) Law Enforcement Records in a pending prosecution of criminal activity are exempt from disclosure," said sheriff's Office Capt. Steve Morris in an e-mail response to the requests.
Smith was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years after pleading guilty last September to two counts of murder, feticide, two counts of serious injury by vehicle and fleeing and attempting to elude police. A felony shoplifting charge, two counts of cruelty to children and six traffic charges were dropped as part of her negotiated plea agreement.
McNeely, who faces the same charges, excluding the traffic charges, is still awaiting trial pending a mental evaluation.
She has a lengthy prison record for felony convictions, including shoplifting, and is being held for violating parole at Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga., according to the Georgia Department of Corrections Web site.
Smith also is being held at Arrendale, according to the site.
Atlanta attorney Richard W. Hendrix, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Branton's husband, John J. Branton, and Morris have refused to discuss details of the suit.
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