DANG it all, here we are midway through June, a half a year dissolved faster than a spoonful of sugar in a glass of tea. As someone I love likes to say, the days are long, but the years are short.
For the family of Matthew Ajibade, however, the last six months have been a painful slog. Since Jan. 1, they’ve waited for information about the death of the 21-year-old former SCAD student, killed while in restraints at the Chatham County Detention Center after he was arrested during a violent bipolar episode.
They’ve waited for the hard truth. And waited.
In May, nine deputies were fired from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in relation to the tragedy, accompanied by a statement announcing policy changes and both internal and state probes but no actual details on what—or who—killed Matt.
Finally, two weeks ago, an autopsy report leaked on social media revealed that county coroner William Wessinger ruled the cause of death as “homicide by blunt force trauma.”
“It took almost six months to find out their son was beaten to death, and then it’s from the internet,” laments Mark O’Mara, the Florida-based attorney and CNN legal consultant representing the Ajibade family. “Where is the civility?”
Understandably, the family’s patience has run out. Increasingly concerned about the glacial pace of the investigation, their lawyers have filed a complaint to remove District Attorney Meg Heap as the prosecutor for the case, citing her close connections with Sheriff Al St. Lawrence as well as personal and political conflicts of interest.
“Heap has an obligation to be a good prosecutor,” says O’Mara. “Instead, she’s stuck her head in the sand.”
The 16-page complaint was filed last week by local counsel Will Claiborne, who lays out a web of intrigue that accuses Heap of having “an interest in the outcome of the case or a relationship with either the victim or the accused.”
The drama begins with another lawsuit filed at the beginning of May against WSAV that demands that neither Sheriff Lawrence nor Heap be required to comply with repeated open records requests by investigative reporter Dave Kartunen.
Starting Jan. 2, immediately after Matt’s death, WSAV’s Kartunen began requesting a copy of the relevant surveillance video as part of his ongoing interest in the jail’s unsettling record of dead inmates (four in the past year, including Ajibade.)
He must’ve gotten really annoying, because St. Lawrence and Heap co-launched an injunction against the TV station, stating that the video is exempt from the public record because it’s part of an open criminal investigation.
WSAV’s attorneys argue that under the law, the video must be released since it led to investigations about the incident by both the Georgia Bureau of Investigations and the Sheriff Dept.’s own Internal Affairs division.
“If an agency is being investigated, then its records are not exempt under the Georgia Open Records Act,” explains Sadie Craig, part of the legal team representing WSAV.
That case will be heard by Judge Michael Karpf on June 29.
WSAV asked for nothing from the DA’s office or Meg Heap herself, and Ajibade’s lawyers say her status as co-plaintiff on the public records dispute and the fact that she shares a lawyer with the Sheriff tarnishes her neutrality.
Especially since St. Lawrence could be named as a possible defendant in the criminal case of the killing of Matt Ajibade.
O’Mara, Claiborne and the family contend that in addition to the skull-cracking deputies already fired, the Sheriff himself ought be under investigation for his failure to institute proper policy for the use of tasers and for allowing an environment where low-ranking personnel have used unnecessary force in a number of incidents.
“Creating a culture of violence and sadism should subject the Sheriff to criminal charges,” reads the petition.
DA Heap is expected to hand down indictments for Ajibade’s death to a grand jury on June 24. There is no indication that 82 year-old St. Lawrence—who’s held office long enough to grow moss on his desk chair—will be included.
The suit seeking to disqualify Heap from any further involvement in the Ajibade case also alleges another problematic alliance: Both the DA and the Sheriff employed David Simons as a political consultant in their election campaigns. (Simons famously ran for Chatham County School Board last year on the platform that he “would run the schools like a business” until an ethics investigation flattened his credibility.)
The complaint asserts than since being elected, Heap has failed to go after anyone represented by Simons—including the construction company Rives Worrell for its shady involvement in a $21 million contract to rebuild a local school.
Another client of Simons’, J.T. Turner, appears to be getting off scot-free in spite of accusations that he fleeced subcontractors out of millions before he claimed bankruptcy earlier this year.
“It’s a case study of Savannah corruption,” rails Claiborne.
But some in the legal community argue (it’s what lawyers do!) that six months is a perfectly appropriate length of time for a thorough investigation and that the attempt to bar Heap from the case will only cause further delays. Yes, the county jail is a mess and needs better oversight, say sources, but the lawsuit won’t change that.
And as for accusations of Heap’s impropreity, they’re an exercise in “politically motivated horseshit.”
(Claiborne ran for district attorney in the 2008 Democratic primary and currently chairs the local party committee. He vehemently denies he’s planning to run against Heap, a Republican, in 2016.)
“The family wants her to step down so that their son’s death will be fairly and impartially investigated and prosecuted,” he avows. “That’s the only point of this lawsuit.”
Life is short, and tragically, some lives are shorter than others. Matthew Ajibade was born in Nigeria and came to Savannah to work, study and create. He struggled with mental illness, but by all reports was kind and respectful except for the day he was arrested while in the throes of his disease.
His family could have piggybacked on the justifiable outrage over the hundreds of young black men killed at the hands of law enforcement. Instead they have patiently tried to work with and within the system.
Shocker: the same system that killed their boy continues to fail them by ignoring them.
I’m no lawyer, and I don’t know if the best thing for the Ajibade family is for DA Heap to recuse herself and let the state appoint an independent prosecutor or to stand by her oath to hold accountable all involved in Ajibade’s death, including those by default and neglect.
The suit against Heap will also be heard in Judge Karpf’s court, and the DA reminded in a statement that she is bound by law from commenting on open cases.
But it wouldn’t hurt for her to send a message that the family and the public desperately needs right now:
That the purpose and priority of the justice system is to mete out justice, not to protect its own.