On Friday morning, the City of Savannah Civil Service Board weighed whether or not they should uphold the firing of former Savannah Police Department (SPD) homicide detective Ashley Wood, whose employment was terminated after an internal investigation revealed she had falsified information in multiple search warrant applications tied to the 2021 murder of Charles Vinson.
At the two-hour meeting held in a second-floor conference room at the Floyd Adams Complex, civil service board members and attorneys questioned Chatham County District Attorney (DA) Shalena Cook Jones and Chatham DA Investigator Alan Sammons about their recollection of the prosecution of cases that Wood investigated, particularly when prosecutors realized Wood’s investigations lacked evidence.
Falsified details in a police officer’s investigation can lead to societal distrust in law enforcement in addition to lack of justice for victims’ families, Jones explained. People also can be imprisoned wrongly ― and for long periods of time ― as a result of police investigations with inconsistent evidence.
“It presents a significant risk to the community,” said Jones. “Because when people don’t believe that law enforcement or prosecutors are taking their cases seriously, it leads to retaliatory shootings in the streets.”
Chatham District Attorney’s testimony
During her testimony, Jones said Wood’s investigation came on her radar when her staff was preparing for a motion hearing in the Marquis Parrish case.
“As we were going through the file, my investigators brought to my attention that there were some anomalies with the investigation and inconsistencies that gave them room for pause and also created questions about the viability of the case going forward,” said Jones.
Then, Jones said she issued a subpoena for Wood. “We usually don’t have to issue subpoenas for lead detectives or murder cases, they understand that it’s a priority. So, I do remember that being an anomaly.”
In addition to the subpoena, Jones said she also emailed SPD Chief Lenny Gunther. In the email, Jones said she told Gunther that she wanted Wood in the DA’s office by 9 a.m., one hour before the hearing started, to discuss her investigation. Jones said she was told that Wood was working on an ATF assignment and that Wood was “busy,” though Jones didn’t clarify who told her that information.
Meanwhile, Jones said, defense counsel was “looking to attack discovery.” Search warrants had been “initiated,” but that information had not been provided to her office. There was also “personal information” that Wood had stored on her phone and computer that the DA’s office, at that point, had not received.
“That put us in a position because legally we are presumed to know everything that law enforcement knows and Judge [John] Morse wanted an answer. That information should have long since been turned over to my office and long since turned over to defense counsel as part of the discovery process.”
Wood did not appear at the 9 a.m. meeting nor the 10 a.m. hearing, Jones testified, who claimed the subpoena was issued 24 hours in advance of the hearing, according to Georgia statutes ― a point with which Wood’s attorney later disagreed.
“I was less alarmed by the fact that she did not show up into at the office at nine to explain these discrepancies because the case could have gotten thrown out. I was not suspicious of her kind of conduct at that time in any way. I just wanted to know what was happening.”
At the hearing, Jones said, Morse gave prosecutors 10 days to meet with defense counsel and exchange any discovery coming from Wood.
Jones said Chatham DA Investigator Alan Sammons and ADA Brian DeBlasiis met with Wood. During that meeting, they reviewed the file to “go over inconsistencies” in the report, including the search warrant that was later determined to falsely state that Parrish was seen in a Walmart surveillance video.
Then, the DA’s office had a “very intense meeting” with Parrish’s defense counsel about Wood’s investigation, said Jones. “The defense counsel was pushing us and, more importantly, they had plans to file a motion for sanctions against me for withholding Giglio information, a punitive motion against me for withholding information.”
As dictated by federal law, Giglio information is material that could impeach the character or testimony of the prosecution witness in a criminal trial.
“My greatest concern as the district attorney is that our office complies with discovery,” said Jones. “I and my team have put a lot of effort into making sure that we catch up on case backlogs. The law for us is that if there’s a discovery request made upon the state, and it’s in the possession of law enforcement, and we don’t have it, we, meaning I, can get sanctioned for that. It is shameful that I did not have that information. And I should have had it.”
But Jones shouldered some of the blame, she said. “I felt like it was a responsibility that we failed, because of the inadequacies and the inconsistencies in the investigation.”
Search warrant discrepancies
Sammons testified that one day before the motion hearing in the case, he began reviewing the case file. He found 34 search warrants that weren’t returned to the court. On March 27, Sammons met with Wood for six to seven hours, he said. During that meeting, Sammons retrieved all the materials that Wood had and that the DA’s office didn’t have.
“I knew that that was a problem,” said Sammons, referring to the search warrant returns.
Wood’s defense attorney Chris Schneider of Schneider Lerch Montgomery said SPD Homicide Detective Jacob Hildebrand and Chief Gunther viewed the search warrant policy differently than SPD Assistant Chief DeVonn Adams.
“Detective Hildebrand testified here that part of the policy at that point was not to make returns with search warrants, because he didn’t want defense lawyers having early access to that material,” said Schneider. “Assistant Chief Adams disagreed with that. And it’s our contention that Chief Gunther from conversations that Miss Wood was privy to during the process of this review would in fact agree with Detective Hildebrand regarding that.”
Gunther did not attend the civil service hearing.
“That part does concern me,” said Schneider. Another point that concerned Schneider: That other SPD officers who have been deemed “untruthful” have kept their jobs.
The Savannah Morning News has sent questions to Savannah Police to clarify its search warrant policy and made an open records request for the policy.
Basis for District Attorney’s quality control plan
During the civil service board meeting, Jones noted that she has implemented a quality control plan to improve prosecutions.
Previous SMN reporting outlined that plan, which includes more stringent requirements for charging criminal and homicide cases, specifically more detailed case files, faster case file completion times and additional police investigative assistance and coordination between the DA’s office and police departments during a case’s prosecutorial phases.
“I will say that Detective Wood is not an anomaly,” Jones said at the civil service board meeting. “And we have found that many, many murder cases, shootings, gang cases, aggravated assaults have been under-investigated.”
Jones added, “Sometimes, these challenges come to make us stronger, and I think that if there’s any good thing to come out of this issue with Detective Wood, it has been to strengthen our processes both in my office, as well as with the police department.”
Friday marked the third day of Wood’s ongoing appeal. During closing arguments, Schneider argued for “an alternative to termination,” City of Savannah attorney Denise Cooper called for the board’s affirmation of Wood’s firing.
Schneider admitted that Wood made mistakes but argued they weren’t intentional. Schneider argued that “it could have been overwork,” citing Jones’ testimony.
Schneider also argued that contrary to Jones’ claim, Wood didn’t receive the subpoena to appear in court soon enough in the Parrish case. Chatham DA legal assistant Suzanne Klein sent the subpoena to Wood at 4:26 p.m. on March 21, according to a piece of evidence introduced by Schneider at the board meeting.
“It could be rectified by proper training,” argued Schneider. “That was what Ms. Jones said. And we all know from [a prior civil service hearing] that Detective Wood has never even been trained as a homicide detective. She’s out there making cases with no training. And the training she had gets canceled so she can go make another case on homicide.”
“She’s not there in court because she’s with the ATF on a task force,” said Schneider. “That’s federal stuff that you can’t just leave because you get a subpoena at 4:26 the night before.”
Cooper argued that Wood was not truthful in search warrant returns. “It was still a laundry list of inconsistencies. That cannot be overlooked. Officers do not have the luxury to just make 34 inconsistencies, then say, oh let’s just give them a slap on the wrist, go back out there.”
Cooper added, “If training was really an issue and of some deep concern for Detective Wood, then why was she taking promotion after promotion? Obviously, she felt okay to move to the next steps.
“This might just not be the job for you,” said Cooper. “And that’s okay. There are other careers. Go forth. But at the Savannah Police Department, we have a standard to uphold when we know about it. No one is excusing that mistakes may occur, things happen. But when we know, then we must do something about it.”
In a phone call after the hearing, City of Savannah Senior Administrative Assistant in the Office of Human Resources Kristina Chandler said there won’t be another civil service hearing in this case.
At the meeting, Civil Service Board Chairman Joe Steffan said he would schedule an online meeting with other board members to deliberate about whether to uphold or deny Wood’s termination.
“Our issues are limited to whether or not this was a politically motivated decision and the particulars of this case,” said Steffan.
Drew Favakeh is the public safety and courts reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Closing arguments made in Savannah detective’s firing