In the waning days of his administration, outgoing Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson pulled a fast shuffle on Marcus Smith.
Smith died while hogtied in the custody of Greensboro police. But before the state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide — death at the hands of another — on Nov. 30, Henderson’s office had already released a statement claiming the State Bureau of Investigation had found no evidence of criminal liability by the police, and that there would be no further investigation on the matter.
The state changed its tune — briefly, as we shall see — when Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan told a community group at Shiloh Baptist Church on Dec. 3 that she believed the DA had yet to conduct a “final review” on the matter.
Remember, too, that Henderson announced his retirement in February 2018, and that Avery Crump, elected in November, was sworn in on Jan. 2 to begin her four-year term.
So it must have been one of Henderson’s last acts in office to flush this whole thing down the toilet.
Henderson’s letter to Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott, dated Dec. 28, outlined the DA’s investigation of the SBI data. And it dropped in the dead of the news cycle, between Christmas and New Year’s, where all good reporters know that stories are sent to die.
“Left for this office’s determination is whether these actions by the officers provide a basis for a criminal homicide by committing a culpably negligent act,” Henderson wrote. “The unequivocal answer is that there is no evidence to substantiate a basis for criminal charges in this matter.”
With his signature, which would be meaningless in a matter of hours, he cleared the department and its officers, tied city council’s hands against further action and closed the books on a nasty incident before his successor came in.
It seems Crump could make the call to investigate further — because no charges have been filed, there was nothing for Henderson to dismiss. But the wheels of justice rarely move backwards, and a new DA can offer a litany of reasons not to re-evaluate her predecessor’s work.
So we’re left with Henderson’s description of the responding officers in his letter to Chief Scott. Did they really demonstrate “patience and restraint” as he said, when their actions resulted in homicide?
Marcus Smith didn’t die the very moment the hogtie was applied. The recording shows that he suffered for several minutes, while no one was watching.
If this is business as usual for the Greensboro Police Department, then the problem is worse than anyone thought.