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.”


Text Only
State News
  • One charged in death of Dalton woman, another sought

    A Dalton woman found dead in Calhoun earlier this month is believed to have died of a drug overdose after two Calhoun residents abandoned her in a car behind the VFW on East Line Street, Lt. Tony Pyle with the Calhoun Police Department said Wednesday afternoon.

    June 18, 2014

  • Guard shot at FedEx center to undergo 14th surgery

    A security guard critically wounded when a gunman went on a rampage at a FedEx facility is scheduled to undergo his 14th operation Tuesday.

    May 27, 2014

  • Arson ruled out as cause of chemical plant fire

    Police say investigators have been able to rule out arson or foul play as the cause of a massive fire at a chemical plant outside Atlanta that spewed black smoke and flames visible for miles.

    May 27, 2014

  • Teen tied to shopping cart drowns in lake

    Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials say a teen has died after being tied to a shopping cart and pushed into Lake Allatoona.

    May 25, 2014

  • Underground tattoo artists frustrate officials

    The work of tattoo artists whose living rooms double as body art studios might come cheap, but experts say the unsterile -- and illegal -- work environments could leave clients in pain long after the initial sting of the needle subsides.

    May 25, 2014

  • No runoff lets Republicans focus on Rep. Barrow

    While Georgia Republicans have to wait until July to settle runoff races for the U.S. Senate and three open House seats, one of the biggest GOP victories in the primary elections last week went to Augusta businessman Rick W. Allen.

    May 25, 2014

  • Audit probes juvenile justice turnover rate

    A state audit cites low pay, long hours and management concerns as reasons for a relatively high turnover rate at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

    May 25, 2014

  • Atlanta schools ex-tech director to be sentenced

    After his relationship with the superintendent of Atlanta’s school system soured, a former technology director for the district set up a kickback scheme to pad his pockets before he left his job, according to court documents.

    May 24, 2014

  • Georgia veteran, 92, honored at surprise ceremony

    Family and friends surprised a 92-year-old World War II veteran from Georgia on Memorial Day by honoring him and presenting him with the World War II Victory Medal.

    May 24, 2014

  • Police: Massive chemical plant fire extinguished

    Authorities say a massive fire at a chemical plant outside Atlanta that spewed black smoke and flames visible for miles has been extinguished.

    May 24, 2014