The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday upheld the extraordinary dismissal of murder and sexual assault charges against a man accused of killing a 12-year-old girl in Savannah, finding prosecutors violated his right to a speedy trial.
The unanimous ruling means that Bobby Lavon Buckner will not stand trial for the fatal abduction of Ashleigh Moore, a seventh-grade honor student who had disappeared from her Chatham County home in the early morning hours of April 18, 2003. About three weeks later, her body was found near the Marriott Riverfront Hotel.
The court upheld a ruling that found the 53-month delay after Buckner’s indictment to be largely attributable to negligent inaction by the District Attorney’s Office and the reassignment of the case from one prosecutor to another.
Buckner was the live-in boyfriend of Ashleigh’s mother. He is not a free man, however.
The day after Ashleigh’s disappearance, Buckner, a convicted sex offender, was arrested for violating a condition of his probation — being alone with Ashleigh and two other children. Buckner later admitted to that violation, pleaded guilty to sex crimes involving four other children and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Buckner was indicted for the murder in 2007 and re-indicted two more times. In 2011, prosecutors announced they were seeking the death penalty against Buckner, causing further delays, but decided against a capital trial about five months later.
In the meantime, Buckner filed a motion seeking to dismiss the charges, arguing his right to a speedy trial had been violated.
Chatham Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann reluctantly ruled in Buckner’s favor. In her order, Freeseman said she had struggled with the issue because the only remedy was “so extreme” — the dismissal of all charges.
But Freesemann noted there were allegations of evidence tampering by law enforcement officials at Ashleigh’s home shortly after her disappearance. Two police officers and a retired police officer who were friends of the family were allowed into the girl’s bedroom before it was secured by investigating officers. One of the officers removed potential evidence from the room and told family members not to tell anyone they had been inside, Fressemann’s order said.
The state then lost recorded statements of witnesses to the evidence tampering and other witnesses are either deceased or unable to recall important details about what occurred, the order said. For these reasons, the unusually long delay in the getting the case to trial prejudiced Buckner’s ability to show what specific pieces of evidence had been altered or manipulated, Freesemann found.
“Certainly, a corrupted crime scene could help a guilty defendant, but conversely it must be recognized that a corrupted crime scene would mosly likely hurt an innocent defendant,” Freesemann wrote. “This is an important distinction in light of the fact that the defendant, having not yet been tried, is presumed to be innocent.”