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

Supreme Court told search was unjustified
Bill Rankin - Staff
Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Fulton County prosecutors cannot justify a search that turned up key evidence in the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, criminal defense lawyers argued Tuesday.

"As horrible as you think the facts in this case might be, what you should be shaking your heads about is that the state just didn't do it," Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Bruce Harvey argued before the Georgia Supreme Court. "It didn't carry its burden."

Harvey represents Terrell's aunt, Terri Lynn Peterson. She and Terrell's grandmother, Pharina Peterson, face murder charges. Terrell died Jan. 15, 1998, at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital where doctors found his emaciated body covered with horrific lacerations and bruises.

Terrell's death prompted child abuse legislation after disclosures that state social workers, hospital personnel, police and the courts had failed him.

But the case against his alleged killers appeared to have been severely weakened when Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane ruled unconstitutional the seizure of evidence from the boy's apartment by Atlanta police Detective R.B. Griffie.

What appears to be a key issue before the Supreme Court is what evidence Fulton County prosecutors put before --- and apparently neglected to put before --- Lane during a pre-trial suppression hearing.

When Griffie entered Terrell's apartment after the boy died, the detective found and seized a note that said Terrell's hands must be "always tied"; pantyhose allegedly used to bind Terrell; and a belt and phone cord that prosecutors say were used to lash him.

Peggy Katz of the Fulton District Attorney's Office argued Tuesday that the seizure was justified because, when Griffie arrived, uniformed police officers already were inside the apartment. There were not other adults there, but Terrell's brother and sister were asleep upstairs.

"Don't forget," Katz told the justices, "you're talking about a dead child here, living in a long-term abusive situation. . . . Do you say it's not a priority to get these children out of a crime scene?"

And because the evidence was in "plain view," Katz said, the detective was justified in seizing it.

The uniformed officers were at the apartment after responding to a 911 call, she added.

But Harvey and Atlanta attorney Bud Siemon, who represents Pharina Peterson, argued that during the suppression hearing, prosecutors failed to show the apartment was a crime scene and failed to put into evidence that the 911 call had been made.

For this reason, the state cannot prove there were "exigent circumstances" --- the emergency situations that justify police intrusions into homes without a warrant or consent, the defense lawyers said.

"You've got to read the transcript," Harvey implored the justices. "There's not a scintilla of evidence there. Not a hint."

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