Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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The people of Aberdeen had the door to responsible government slammed in their faces Thursday. The Chief of Police thinks in slamming that door shut he has closed the case on the death of Prof. Morgan Lewis.
Early the morning of Monday, Nov. 1, 2004, the custodian of Seymour Hall on the Northern State University campus came to work and found a body lying in a pool of blood by an entrance door. It was the body of Prof. Morgan Lewis who taught German at both the University and Aberdeen Central High School. Prof. Lewis was known among colleagues and students as personable, industrious, and dedicated. A Californian, he was gay and of Lakota descent.
The Police Department was not forthcoming about the ensuing investigation. The circumstances of the death were puzzling. Prof. Lewis died from a gunshot wound to the left side of his neck. The gun was found in a dumpster about 30 yards away. The police termed the death suspicious, but gave strong hints that their favorite theory was suicide. Forensic experts say that a suicide done in an open area where there is foot traffic is unusual.Based upon a medical examiners report, however, the coroner termed the death a homicide on the death certificate.
The police gave out no information on the case. They refused to discuss the evidence. Prof. Lewis’ obituary in the local newspaper did not contain the usual information about family, education and work history, or any other resume items that would further identify the new professor to the community. It all seemed vaporized.
The police had the means of death. They had a list of people who had the opportunity to inflict death. They had no motive for either suicide or homicide. With no information about the ensuing investigation coming from the police, the people began to speculate. Some said a spurned or jealous lover did it. Some thought it was a hate crime. Some said it was done by a hired hit man for a drug deal gone wrong or some other underworld reason. Some said that an angry student or a jealous and resentful faculty member with a wounded ego may have done it. The police department provided no information that were working with evidence and information that was more sound than the speculations.
The doubts about the police department handling of the case were heightened when the policeman assigned to patrol the NSU campus suddenly resigned. He had been reprimanded and threatened for talking about the case. His quitting came in the midst of other resignations and firings in the department. Two policemen who were fired appealed their terminations. The firings were found wrongful and the City had to pay settlements for them. The citizens had plenty of reasons not to trust the police department or the city.
Withholding information during the course of an investigation is legitimate practice when an investigation might be compromised. When a case is closed, however, it becomes a matter of public record.Thursday the Chief of Police announced that the case was ruled a suicide and was closed.
He made the announcement to a meeting at which a large number of faculty and staff from NSU were present. His announcement was met with skepticisim and disbelief. This was reported in two stories on Friday by the Aberdeen American News. The announcement was also covered by a better story in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader
. That story is better because it follows up on the line of authority through which such cases are handled.
Despite questions from faculty, the Chief of Police refused to discuss or disclose any evidence that led to the ruling. He said legal reasons kept him from discussing the evidence. There are no laws that prohibit the police from explaining the evidence and how it leads to a ruling. In fact, there are laws that require full disclosure of the record. [SDCL 1-27-1 & 3; 1-25-1.]
In suspicious deaths, all evidence is open for pubic examination. Law enforcement agencies cannot be held liable for any information uncovered in the course of their investigations.
“Legal reasons” is simply a false dodge.
Then the Chief said that three consultants, two from Minnesota and one from Florida, concurred in the suicide ruling. Who the consultants were, what standing they might have, and why they were consulted was also not revealed. We could supply a lengthy Supreme Court-type brief from legal scholars on why this dodge is nonsense, but suffice it to say that the way a police department does its job is the people’s business and they have the right to know.
The Chief’s only response to the skepticism was to exhort the people to trust him. In the context of his wrongful firings, this is not likely.
People raise the question about whether the information on this case can be acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. That act applies to federal agencies. State law applies to state and local agencies.
South Dakota law has loopholes that permit some elements of government to operate in clandestine, devious, and potentially illegal ways. However, its general provisions are that all public officials must keep records and must make them open to public inspection.
The Argus Leader, among other media, have sued to have some state records opened for inspection. Media and other citizens may have to sue the City of Aberdeen to get access to the records of this case.
Another route is for the City Council to exercise its power of investigation. While council members are prohibited from exercising power over any city official or department, it does have the responsibility to oversee the functioning of the government and to work in consultation with the mayor in solving problems. Under the Home Rule Charter, Section 2.09, the council has the power to investigate any matters of government and to “subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony, and require the production of evidence.” It is also mandated by statute that the council examine the records of any officers under its purview periodically and to require that actions be taken when it finds failure to perform competently as required.
In this case, the news accounts have stated that the coroner will amend Morgan Lewis’ death certificate from homicide to suicide. However, the coroner does not have to change that information if he does not possess convincing information that warrants it. If the coroner refuses to change the cause of death, a judge must rule on it. In other words, a judge could require that the case be opened for judicial review and decision.
The county state’s attorney has a major role in how potential homicide cases are processed. In this case, the state’s attorney has supported the Chief of Police in closing the records. Concerned citizens have grounds to make an appeal to the state Attorney General, if they find the performance wanting. The Attorney General has the responsibility and the power to consult with, advise, and exercise supervision over the several state's attorneys of the state in matters pertaining to the duties of their office.
While the president of NSU accepted the ruling of suicide, he told the Argus Leader that the questions of professors were legitimate. He stated it is the nature of the profession to require evidence, to be skeptical until a conclusion is fully supported, and to examine all evidence from as many perspectives as possible.
That is also the right and responsibility of citizens.