Christopher E. Swecker is a former assistant district attorney, career F.B.I. Special Agent, former Assistant Director of the F.B.I. in charge of Criminal Investigations, and current chair of the Governors’ Crime Commission. He served as Global Security Director for Bank of America, and is now Director of Chris Swecker Enterprises, providing security services for public and private clients. He oversaw the investigations that led to the capture of top-ten fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph and the dismantling of the Charlotte, NC Hezbollah terror cell.
In 2010, after years of questions about the objectivity and professionalism in the State Bureau of Investigation, Attorney General Roy Cooper hired Director Swecker to address serious problems in the S.B.I. laboratory. Cooper asked Swecker to audit the Forensic Biology Section of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) Crime Laboratory. The five-month review, including more than 15,000 cases, revealed that the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases at the expense of potentially innocent men and women. Director Swecker said his findings signal potential violations of the U.S. Constitution and North Carolina laws by withholding information favorable to defendants. “The lab cannot accept a lack of thoroughness,” Cooper said. “It cannot accept attitudes that are not open to the possibility that a mistake has been made. It cannot ignore criticism and suggestions from the outside.” (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/special-reports/article10365422.html)
The Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee engaged Director Swecker to do an independent review of the original Silk Plant Forest investigation. He was not asked to advocate in any way. And he was not asked to render an opinion on whether Kalvin Michael Smith was innocent or guilty. Rather, Director Swecker was asked only to do an independent review of the case and, if he chose, to announce that opinion in whatever way he chose to whomever he chose, at any time he chose. Before concluding his report and issuing it publicly, Director Swecker elected to review his findings on May 3, 2012 with then-Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham.
Director Swecker spent more than 250 hours over a 16-month period, independently releasing it to the public on May 29, 2012 at a news conference at Wake Forest University.
In his report, Director Swecker concluded that the “SPF Citizen’s Review Committee’s findings and conclusions are well founded and based on a more thorough and impartial investigation of the Silk Plant Forest case than the original investigation. “(4) He “fully agree(d)” with the SPFCRC’s conclusion that it had no confidence in the investigation, the information in question, or the result of the investigation. (Swecker 17) Further, he saw no reason to drop Kenneth Lamoureux as a suspect in the assault on Jill Marker. (Swecker, 1) In addition, Swecker observes, “Close review of the extensive record of this case reveals, however, that the mistakes, procedural violations, lost evidence, unsound practices and possibly untrue testimony in multiple legal proceedings cast doubt on crucial evidence that ultimately formed the basis for the trial jury’s conviction of Smith and, at minimum, inhibited a vigorous defense and challenge to the prosecution’s case.” (Swecker, 9-10) Most tellingly, Swecker observed, “The [original] jury discharged their duty faithfully and rendered a decision based on the evidence that was presented to them. Unfortunately, the very limited and flawed record created by that trial has provided the framework for subsequent legal proceedings.” Consequently, Swecker concludes, “It is the opinion of this reviewer that due to the flawed nature of the original investigation only a new trial that considers the full record and evidence not available, misrepresented or omitted in the original trial will provide the full measure of justice the Community of Winston-Salem and every accused defendant deserves.” (Swecker 17)
The Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee was created by resolution of the Winston-Salem City Council on October 22, 2007 as amended March 3, 2008. The SPFCRC was charged “to conduct a comprehensive fact finding review into the Jill Marker – Silk Plant Forest case and other cases that the committee determines plausibly to be related to the Silk Plant Forest Case and to make recommendations to the City Council consistent with (applicable North Carolina statutes).” The resolution called for the City Council to appoint nine citizens with no “prior connections with or involvement in (the original investigation) or with opinions on the guilt or innocence of Kalvin Michael Smith.
The City Council’s resolution further instructed the Committee not to make any finding or determination of guilt or innocence in the case and to focus on the question whether police procedures were followed. The independent committee was staffed full-time by two then-serving Winston-Salem police officers—Lieutenant Joseph Ferrelli and Sergeant Chuck Byrom; each had over 28 year’s tenure at the time. Nearly all the investigative work, including about 60 new interviews of witnesses, purported witnesses, and police officers, was performed by Lt. Ferrellli and Sgt. Byrom. The City Council’s resolution stated “information that may have a bearing on the guilt or innocence of Kalvin Smith (shall be) promptly forwarded to the District Attorney and Kalvin Smith’s defense attorneys in compliance with the law.”
On March 17, 2009, the Committee adopted a resolution that read, in part: “…we are aware of no credible evidence that Kalvin Michael Smith was at the Silk Plant Forest Store in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on December 9, 1995, at or about the time that the crime for which he was charged was committed.” (SPFCRC, Report, 2009, 40)
The Committee issued its “Findings and Recommendations” on July 24, 2009. The Committee concluded:
After reviewing the Silk Plant Forest investigation at length, the Committee has concluded that at critical stages in the investigation the investigators filed to follow procedures which, if followed, would have enhanced the reliability and completeness of the information that was provided to the prosecutors and ultimately to the court. For this reason the Committee does not have confidence in the investigation, the information in question, or the result of the investigation. In some instances the investigators violated expressly stated departmental policy. In other instances they failed to take desirable steps that were authorized by the departmental policy but were not clearly required. In still other instances they engage in conduct that departmental policy simply did not address adequately. (SPFCRC, Report, 2009, 5)
Click here to read the SPFCRC Report (only a redacted version was released to the public).
In November 2004, the Winston-Salem Journal published a five-part series reported by Phoebe Zerwick and edited by Les Gura; the series involved six months of research. The series entitled, “Attack at the Silk Plant Forest,” re-examined the December 9, 1995 attack on Jill Marker at the Silk Plant Forest artificial plant store, the ensuing police investigation, and the prosecution and conviction of Kalvin Michael Smith. This Journal series was based on hundreds of pages of police reports and court transcripts, as well as dozens of interviews with Jill and her family, Kalvin, witnesses, current and retired police officers and detectives and lawyers, and experts in police interrogation, head trauma and eyewitness identification.
Phoebe Zerwick came to Winston-Salem in 1987 and has covered business, health and medicine, city hall, race relations, and criminal justice. Her eight-part series “Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt,” which led to Hunt’s exoneration after nearly 20 years of incarceration, won numerous national and statewide journalism awards. After leaving the Journal in 2008, she has written for magazines and teaches journalism and writing at Wake Forest University.