Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Terrell case: Did detective seize evidence illegally?
Search is at issue: State high court may decide fate of aunt, grandmother in boy's death.
Bill Rankin - Staff
Sunday, September 10, 2000

Atlanta Police Detective R. B. Griffie had just left the hospital where 5-year-old Terrell Peterson lay dead, his emaciated body covered with horrific bruises and abrasions.

Griffie, then a homicide investigator, drove immediately to the Leila Lane apartment complex where emergency medics had found Terrell in cardiac arrest. Inside the apartment, Griffie saw a note posted on Terrell's bedroom door that said the boy's hands must be "always tied." The detective seized it as evidence.

Griffie also took the pantyhose hanging on the stairwell bannister that Terrell's sister said was used to bind the child. And Griffie collected the phone cord and belt, lying on a nearby sofa, that prosecutors now say were used to lash the boy.

Fulton County prosecutors are eager to use these key pieces of evidence in the upcoming death penalty trials of Terrell's aunt, Terri Lynn Peterson, and grandmother, Pharina Peterson. Both are charged with murder in the boy's death.

But in a pretrial appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments as to whether Griffie was justified in seizing the items without a warrant. If they can't use the items at trial, Fulton prosecutors have said, their case may be gutted. The court must issue its ruling by March.

The high-profile murder case is expected to expose the tragic circumstances of Terrell's death. But Fulton prosecutors first have to fend off accusations that critical evidence may have been illegally obtained.

In December, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane found Griffie's search in violation of the Fourth Amendment because he had not obtained a warrant to enter the apartment. She barred introduction of the evidence at trial.

"It's going to be a difficult decision for the Georgia Supreme Court," University of Georgia criminal law professor Ron Carlson said.

"Clearly a challenge to the prosecution is to justify the officer's movement in the house without a search warrant," he said. "The U.S. Supreme Court as well as the Georgia Supreme Court has liberalized procedures for police when they are searching in other areas, such as in automobiles or on the street. But the courts have been very strong in preserving the sanctity of the home."

Terrell Peterson became the poster child for Georgia's abused and neglected children late last year after disclosures that he suffered beatings and was malnourished throughout his brief life, and that state social workers, hospital personnel, police and the courts all failed to take the necessary steps to keep him safe.

Terrell and his siblings had been the subject of eight reports of neglect and abuse to the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services. But when the 5-year-old died, he weighed only 29 pounds.

Federal suit pending

A federal lawsuit is now pending against DFACS, charging that Terrell's death could have been prevented if state social workers had done their jobs properly. In the wake of the revelations, the General Assembly created an office of child advocate and Gov. Roy Barnes ordered an investigation into the deaths of 13 children, including Terrell.

Another law enacted by the Legislature bore Terrell's name and gives emergency room doctors the right to take temporary custody of children they believe are in danger from abuse or neglect.

Terrell died at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital on Jan. 15, 1998. Griffie, a 15-year veteran of the Atlanta Police force, was called to the hospital shortly after he arrived for the midnight shift. Terrell had been pronounced dead about an hour earlier. After seeing Terrell's body, scarred and bruised, Griffie talked with Terri Lynn Peterson, who had accompanied the boy to the hospital.

Peterson told Griffie that Terrell had recently stayed with a niece of hers and returned home with fresh injuries. She also said that many of Terrell's wounds had been self-inflicted. Griffie arrested her on the spot, charging her with cruelty to children for not reporting the injuries. He then headed to the Petersons' apartment on Leila Lane.

Upon arrival, Griffie encountered three uniformed officers on the apartment's first floor keeping the place secure because Terrell's sister and brother were asleep upstairs and no adults were present. Peterson's boyfriend, Calvin Pittman, who also lived in the apartment, had been taken in for questioning.

At a pretrial hearing, Griffie testified he then went upstairs to ask the children whether there were any relatives they could stay with. That was where he saw three notes taped to the children's bedroom door.

One note read, "Terrell's List Bad . . . Make sure he gets a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. Lunch he gets grits and dinner he gets grits. His hands are always tied."

Griffie looked across the hall and saw the pantyhose on the stairway railing. Terrell's 11-year-old sister told the detective the hose was used to tie Terrell to the bannister. Griffie then saw the three-foot phone cord and belt that prosecutors say were used to beat Terrell. Griffie immediately had these items photographed and seized.

In court motions, attorneys for Terri Lynn Peterson contend that because Griffie had not obtained a warrant he had no right to be upstairs when he seized the items.

"Griffie received no information that there was any concern for the safety of any other persons, medical or otherwise," said the motion filed by lawyers David Wolfe and Bruce Harvey. "Griffie never stated there was any exigency, emergency or special necessity for going to the Peterson residence."

'Constitutional catastrophe'

The lawyers contend "it would be not much less than a constitutional catastrophe" if the Georgia high court allows such an exception to the Constitution's guarantees against unwarranted searches and seizures. But District Attorney Paul Howard and his chief appellate lawyer, Peggy Katz, argue Griffie's seizure of evidence was justified.

In their motions, they argue Griffie was entitled to enter the home because uniformed officers were already there. And the evidence he seized was in plain view, an exception courts have allowed to officers when they are lawfully inside a home, the prosecutors noted.

Griffie would have been "derelict in his duty" if he had not gone to the house to ensure the removal of Terrell's siblings before any adults returned, the prosecutors argued. "His conduct in the house was in no way inconsistent with his reason for entering the house. . . . Requiring an officer to ignore incriminating evidence which is literally staring him in the face in the course of fulfilling his duty to the children does not serve the interests of justice."

Staff writer Ron Martz contributed to this article.

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