Second-degree murder case sent back to Rowan County to decide defendant’s right to speedy trial

Published 12:04 am Sunday, May 22, 2022

SALISBURY — The North Carolina Supreme Court is sending a case back to Rowan County for a rehearing to decide if a man convicted of two counts of second degree murder had his Sixth Amendment right to a fair and speedy trial violated.

After six years of awaiting trial, Khalil Abdul Farook in 2018 was convicted in Rowan County Superior Court for the June 17, 2012, deaths of Tommy Jones, 47, and wife Suzette Jones, 48. Farook was found guilty by jury on two counts of felony second-degree murder and status as a violent habitual felon, among other charges. Farook received two life sentences along with a consecutive prison sentence of 29 to 44 months.

The conviction came two days after Chris Sease, Farook’s attorney at the time, made a pretrial motion to dismiss the charges due to a violation of his client’s right to a speedy trial. The right is protected under the U.S. Constitution. 

The trial court denied the motion after hearing an argument from the prosecution that largely hinged on testimony from one of Farook’s previous lawyers, James Davis. Judge Anna Mills Wagoner entered the judgment. Davis was one of four lawyers who represented Farook while he awaited trial. Farook’s case was put on the calendar several times, but wasn’t heard until 2018.

Farook appealed his case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, who vacated his conviction and reversed the trial court’s denial of his motion to dismiss by ruling that the trial court erred in allowing Davis’ testimony.

In a split ruling filed May 6, the Supreme Court asserted that the Court of Appeals was correct.

“We affirm the Court of Appeals’ holding on the evidentiary question and conclude that the trial court improperly admitted the testimony of Mr. Farook’s prior attorney where there was no waiver of the attorney-client privilege,” the Supreme Court’s majority opinion read.

Davis was the state’s sole witness during the pretrial hearing on Farook’s Sixth Amendment right. Davis testified that it was his desire to delay the case once it became clear that Farook would possibly face a violent habitual felon indictment because in his experience delay would work to Farook’s advantage.

Davis also testified generally to the backlog of cases that beset the Rowan County courts at the time and explained that he told Farook sometime during his representation that it was unlikely he would be available to represent him at a trial because of his other professional obligations.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court asserted that the state “may have had alternative ways to put into evidence the same facts (Davis) testified to if the improperly admitted testimony had not been admitted in the first place.”

The Supreme Court also asserted that “the state may also have decided to rely on entirely different facts not elicited before the trial court if it had not been allowed to introduce the improperly admitted testimony.”

In essence, the state could have argued against Farook’s motion to dismiss without using Davis’ testimony.

As a result, the court will “remand this case for a rehearing on Mr. Farook’s speedy trial claim rather than evaluate the evidence at this stage.”

Unlike the Court of Appeals’ decision, the Supreme Court ruling was not unanimous. Justice Philip Berger wrote the dissenting opinion, with Chief Justice Paul Newby and Justice Tamara Barringer joining in the opinion.

In the dissenting opinion, Berger disagrees with the Court of Appeals’ assessment that the burden to explain the six-year delay was on the state. Instead, Berger agrees with the trial court’s initial assessment that the burden is on the “accused who asserts denial of a speedy trial to show that the delay was due to the neglect or willfulness of the prosecution.”

Farook’s case will be scheduled for a hearing, but it is unclear when.

Farook has remained incarcerated since he was arrested for the crime in June of 2012.

Even before he was charged in the deaths of Tommy and Suzette Jones, Farook had an extensive criminal record. He was previously convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, second degree murder, assault on a female and driving while under the influence, among other charges.

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About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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