State News

February 6, 2013

Ruling puts slain girl’s family at ’dead end’

SAVANNAH — Almost a decade has passed since 12-year-old Ashleigh Moore was found raped and strangled weeks after she vanished from her Savannah home, and the slain girl’s family is grieving once again after a Georgia Supreme Court ruling nearly extinguished any hope that a suspect will stand trial in her death.

Bobby Lavon Buckner, the boyfriend of Ashleigh’s mother and a convicted child molester, had been awaiting trial in the girl’s slaying until a Chatham County judge dismissed all charges last May. The judge’s ruling — that years of delays and vanishing evidence had violated Buckner’s right to a speedy trial — was upheld by the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Willie Mae Berry, Ashleigh’s grandmother in Savannah, said Tuesday the family was heartbroken.

“We at a dead end now,” Berry said in a phone interview.  “We’ve got judges that are guided by the law and his rights. I just don’t feel like we were given all of our rights. All we can do now is just pray that she rests in peace.”

Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap said attorneys for the state decided not to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Asking the Georgia court to reconsider its unanimous decision would also be a longshot.

An honors student who played basketball at DeRenne Middle School, Ashleigh was on spring break in April 2003 when she went missing the Friday before Easter. Her family, police and a dedicated group of volunteers spent more than three weeks searching for the seventh-grader before a fisherman found her body along the Savannah River.

Buckner, who lived with Ashleigh and her mother and sister, had reported her missing and was jailed almost immediately for violating conditions of his probation. He had pleaded guilty in 1996 to charges child molestation and statutory rape after being charged with forcing sex on a 12-year-old girl. The terms of his probation prohibited him from being alone with girls under 16.

It took prosecutors more than four years to charge Buckner in Ashleigh’s death. Even then the case was plagued by delays. Trial dates were set and then postponed for Buckner more than 10 times. In March 2011, days before Buckner’s latest trial date, prosecutors announced they intended to seek the death penalty, practically rebooting the case because Buckner had to have new lawyers appointed. Four months later, prosecutors reversed course and said they no longer planned to seek death.

When Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann dismissed the charges against Buckner last May, she noted some evidence in the case had been lost or destroyed and was concerned that witnesses’ memories were fading. The state Supreme Court said it could find no error with her judgment.

Buckner’s attorney, Newell Hamilton, said Tuesday prosecutors had no physical evidence to link Buckner to Ashleigh’s death but settled on him early as their lone suspect because of his criminal record.

“Because Bobby was a convicted sex offender and because he had pleaded guilty to other sex offenses, he made a very convenient suspect,” Hamilton said. “But what was missing from the equation was the evidence that Bobby did it.”

Though he’s no longer charged with Ashleigh’s killing, Buckner remains locked up at Calhoun State Prison following his probation violation. According to the state Department of Corrections, Buckner isn’t scheduled for release until April 2016.

As Chatham County’s new district attorney, Heap made the bungled prosecution of Buckner an issue in her campaign last fall against Larry Chisholm, who ended up losing his race for re-election as the coastal county’s top prosecutor.

Heap said Tuesday that the office of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens had the final say on whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“These appeals are discretionary and are rarely granted,” Heap said in a statement. “I spoke to the attorney general and they have declined to appeal the case.”

Meanwhile Ashleigh’s grandmother sounded resigned, saying that after 10 years of seeking justice for the slain girl “we’re just tired and weary.”

“That man’s going to have to live with what he did. And I do think he accomplished the murder,” Berry said of Buckner. “He’s going to be tried by a higher source.”

 

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