The public’s ability to know more about the night a Harnett County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed John Livingston took another step forward Monday.
Superior Court Judge Gale Adams denied Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart’s attempt to delay the impact of another judge’s order to turn over the State Bureau of Investigation report on Livingston’s death.
The fight will now head to the state Court of Appeals. Judges there will likely allow Stewart to delay turning over the records until they rule on the case. Stewart is appealing a June ruling that he must release the file, along with other investigative records, to attorneys for Livingston’s family, who plan to file a civil lawsuit.
“While we respect the court’s ruling, it is a matter we feel should be considered by the appellate court,” Stewart said Monday.
The ruling is the latest in a battle pitting county officials against residents who say they have been abused and harassed by sheriff’s deputies. The residents, including Livingston’s family and its attorneys, argue that restoring the public’s trust in the department will require complete disclosure of records.
An attorney for Stewart told the judge last month that the request for records stemmed from residents and reporters “just being nosy.”
The News & Observer reported in May on misconduct at the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office. The report, Deadly Force, examined deputy Nicholas Kehagias’ actions the night he killed Livingston as well as a half-dozen other incidents in which residents complained that deputies used excessive force.
A misleading report
Kehagias, investigating an assault that didn’t involve Livingston, went to Livingston’s home at 3:40 in the morning seeking another suspect. Denied entry to the home, Kehagias forced his way in, saying Livingston assaulted him when he attempted to close the door and hit the deputy’s foot.
A 10-minute fight ensued. It ended with Kehagias shooting Livingston three times. He later said he feared for his life after Livingston gained control of the deputy’s Taser. A county grand jury declined Stewart’s request to indict Kehagias for second-degree murder, but he resigned from the sheriff’s office in late June. The U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating the case, among others.
The N&O also reported on the death of Brandon Bethea, an inmate who was shot and killed by sheriff’s detention officers with a Taser in 2011. A surveillance video obtained by the N&O shows a shackled Bethea backing away as he is repeatedly shocked with a Taser. The incident report from the sheriff’s office on Bethea’s death was misleading; it said the Taser was used to control Bethea during an altercation.
Judge Mary Ann Tally cited the N&O’s report on the differences between the surveillance video and the official report as part of her decision to force full public disclosure in the Livingston case.
SBI reports are not typically public, but judges have the authority to order their public release.
Adams ruled Monday that Stewart “failed to show substantial injustice if a stay is not granted and has failed to show a substantial likelihood of success on appeal to substantial prejudice or irreparable harm should the materials be released.”
Support from county
Harnett County officials are fighting to keep records about Livingston’s death confidential. The county and sheriff’s office are not parties to the lawsuit over the records, though they have asked to intervene.
The county, however, is picking up the tab on the legal battle.
Jim Burgin, chairman of the commissioners, defended the use of taxpayer money to try to keep the records from being disseminated publicly. He said that the file contains statements from witnesses and private medical information that should not be released.
“I hate to use taxpayer money on anything but services for citizens, but because the Attorney General would not defend the DA, we had to,” Burgin said.
The Attorney General’s office withdrew from the case after Stewart decided to appeal the judge’s ruling ordering the release of the file. The AG’s office said the two parties had a difference of opinion about how to proceed.
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews