Current sheriff says once he found out, he ordered the kit be processed
The rape, kidnapping and murder trial of a Harnett County man has been delayed after several factors were brought before the trial judge.
According to a court document obtained by The Daily Record, the trial of Christopher R. Williams was continued after a document submitted by his attorneys, Robert Buzzard and Elisa Salmon, claimed the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office acted inappropriately in handling the rape kit taken from the victim two days after the crime was reported.
Mr. Williams is charged with first-degree murder, 10 counts of first-degree rape, 11 counts of first-degree sexual offense and kidnapping.
He is accused of raping his grandmother, 76-year-old Luray Bester, 10 times over two days. She subsequently died four months after being taken to a care facility in another state.
The alleged crimes took place on Dec. 8 and 9, 2012, the rape kit was done Dec. 11. It was not sent to the state crime lab until this year.
Superior Court Judge James M. Webb wrote in his order to continue the case, “That inexplicably the Harnett County Sheriff’s Department waited over five years to forward the rape kit evidence to the state lab in 2018.”
Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart said his office holds no responsibility for the delay in the kit being sent and said he has no explanation.
“We prepare the cases, we don’t investigate them,” Mr. Stewart said. “We don’t have an explanation why the evidence didn’t get sent to the crime lab until it did.”
Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats, who was not sheriff when the crime took place, says his office acted appropriately when sending the kit to the state crime lab earlier this year.
“Since I became sheriff, our detectives discovered and informed me that the rape kit which had been obtained from Ms. Bester had not yet been processed. I directed that it be sent to the state crime laboratory for testing,” Sheriff Coats said.
“The defendant’s capacity to proceed was litigated before the court and in November of 2017 he was found to be capable of proceeding to trial. On Sept. 10, 2018, the Superior Court stated, ‘This case taken as a whole is so unusual and complex that more time is needed for the defendant to adequately prepare for trial.’ The defendant has filed several pre-trial motions including another motion to challenge the defendant’s competency to stand trial,’” Sheriff Coats said.
“It is my belief that the prosecution of this case should not be adversely affected by the timing of the submittal for analysis of the rape kit,” Sheriff Coats said. “This happened before I was sheriff.”
Under current North Carolina statutes, investigators are only required to submit rape kits prior to the start of trial, there is currently no mandatory law requiring submission any earlier.
While the timing of the submission of the rape kit was one of the more prominent claims by defense attorneys in their complaint, there were other factors taken into consideration by Judge Webb who ordered the delay of the trial that was set to begin Sept. 7.
In his ruling, Judge Webb cited several points, not the least of which was the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence, which would have disrupted the trial should it have begun on time.
Early on in the case, the competency of Mr. Williams to stand trial was questioned before Superior Court Judge Winston Gilchrist found him capable to proceed to trial.
There were also several pretrial motions filed with the court. Among them were motions to again challenge his competency. Also cited in the court’s ruling were a motion for additional DNA/lab records, a motion to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial, a motion to suppress the victim’s statements and a motion to suppress the warrantless seizure of penile swabbing from the defendant.
The sheriff responded to the allegations of his office being incompetent by the defense by saying under his administration policy of when rape kits and other evidence are submitted has differed from that of his predecessor.
“What we have done since I’ve been sheriff is to submit everything just as soon as we get it, whether it’s used or not. This has been implemented in our policy.”
Harry Ennis, Sheriff Coats’ opponent in next month’s election, issued a statement concerning the five-year delay in submitting the rape kit as “pure negligence and incompetence.”
According to Judge Webb, 300 potential jurors had been summoned for this trial, but not directed to report to the Harnett County Courthouse for jury selection.
There has been no date set for the trial to begin, according to Mr. Stewart.
-Dunn Daily Record