By Steve Reed
SMITHFIELD — The Jesse Santifort involuntary manslaughter trial, originally prosecuted by the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office, has been assigned to a state prosecutor.
The decision to change prosecutors was made Sept. 4 at the criminal administration hearing at Johnston County Superior Court, said Johnston County Clerk of Superior Court Michelle Creech Ball.
Superior Court Judge Joshua Willey presided at the hearing.
Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle gave no explanation Sept. 5 other than to say a conflict in the Johnston County office prohibited it from moving forward with Santifort’s prosecution.
Santifort, a former Kenly police officer, is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the stun gun death of 37-year-old Alex Thompson of Smithfield.
Santifort stunned Thompson with a Taser after a police chase originating in Wilson ended on Bizzell Church Road near Selma on March 3, 2016. Thompson died three days later at WakeMed Health in Raleigh.
The trial, which was scheduled to begin Oct. 22, has experienced several procedural delays.
Doyle said the case has been reassigned to Mike Muskus, the arson and homicide resource prosecutor from the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.
Doyle declined further comment about what led to the case’s reassignment.
“I cannot divulge our conflict without commenting on the evidence, which is unethical in a pending case,” said Doyle. “I cannot discuss any more about the conflict or the timeline without discussing the facts.”
Doyle said Muskus already had a homicide case scheduled for trial in October, so he and the defendant’s attorney will soon confer on a new trial date.
Doyle said the case is set for the Superior Court administrative calendar on Monday, Oct. 1 so Muskus and Santfort’s attorney, Walter Webster of Goldsboro, can discuss scheduling.
Neither Muskus nor Webster have responded to interview requests.
Prior to Santifort being charged with a crime, Doyle’s office obtained two separate orders compelling production of his personnel files and educational records. Santifort wasn’t provided with any notice these records were being sought.
Santifort was indicted on an involuntary manslaughter charge on Sept. 6, 2016. Two months after his indictment, Santifort filed motions to set aside the state’s orders, which were denied by the trial court.
On Nov. 3, 2016, a hearing was held on Santifort’s motion before Judge William Pittman in Johnston County Superior Court.
Pittman denied Santifort’s motion stating that his court couldn’t overrule Judges Ronald Stephens and Thomas Lock’s earlier orders granting Doyle access to Santifort’s documents.
Pittman said, “ruling on a motion to suppress the State’s use of any information obtained in the produced records is immature.”
A North Carolina Court of Appeals opinion in the case states, “Judge Pittman’s attempt to retroactively incorporate these documents into Santifort’s criminal file constituted error. However, Judge Pittman’s handling of these documents is somewhat understandable in light of the errors that had occurred from the inception of the State’s decision to seek them prior to the initiation of criminal proceedings.”
The appellate court said the two orders Doyle’s office obtained from Superior Court Judges Ronald Stephens and Thomas Lock were void from the beginning and reversed them.