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Column: Three bad apples

Posted: June 7, 2018 1:27 p.m.
Updated: June 8, 2018 1:00 a.m.

If you’ve ever watched CBS’ Criminal Minds, you’re probably familiar with its opening credits during which a montage of mugshots are shown. Look closely at the center and you’ll see Susan Smith, the Union County woman who, in October 1994, let her car roll into a lake, drowning her 3-year-old and 11-month-old sons.

The case became notorious because Smith, now 46 and serving a life sentence at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, claimed she had been carjacked by a black man. She will be eligible for parole in November 2024 when she’s 53 years old.

In an eerily similar 2010 case, 16 years after Smith drowned her sons, deputies in Orangeburg County arrested Shaquan Duley for leaving the scene of an “accident” that killed her 2-year-old and 18-month old sons. What really happened was horrific. She suffocated her sons at a motel just outside Orangeburg by putting her hand over their mouths. She then placed their bodies into their car seats, drove to the North Edisto River and set the car into the water to make it look they had drowned.

Duley is serving 35 years for murder without the possibility of parole; she cannot be released until August 2045 when she is 64. Duley is also being held at Leath.

Fast forward another eight years to last week and the case of 19-year-old Breanna Lewis of Chesterfield County. Very late in the afternoon on May 29, a harsh emergency broadcast tone blared from cell phones all across South Carolina alerting the public of an AMBER Alert for Lewis’ 11-month-old daughter, Harlee.

Within moments of our posting the alert on our Facebook page, visitors told us other outlets were reporting Harlee had been found dead. Although we had just talked with the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office (CSSO) before posting the AMBER Alert, we were told no one could speak with us. All we could say was that we were waiting for official confirmation … which never came.

According to the alert and other media, Lewis claimed a gold-and-tan SUV stopped in front of her home while she was checking her mail; a man got out, punched her in the head and snatched Harlee away before driving off.

From what we understand now, although the CCSO never responded to our request for information, Lewis’ story was a lie. Deputies found Harlee’s body inside a diaper box in a yard about 1,000 yards away. They arrested Lewis after she reportedly admitted to making up the abduction story. She’s been charged with filing a false police report, the improper disposal of human remains and destruction of DNA evidence.

In our justice system, there is a legal metaphor called “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” It means that if evidence is obtained illegally, it cannot be used against a defendant. In other words, if the source, or tree, is tainted, then the evidence itself is also tainted.

I’m going to use this phrase a little differently. Every time a parent -- I can’t believe there haven’t been men who have done this, too -- is arrested for killing their children after claiming someone abducted them or that there was an “accident,” it taints the tree for every other parent out there truly reporting their child as missing.

Smith, Duley and (presumably) Lewis are three bad apples who have tainted that tree, or, perhaps, barrel would be the more apt metaphor. In Lewis’ case, this includes the activation of an AMBER Alert.

The system didn’t exist until 1996, so it wouldn’t have been used in the Smith case. None was issued in the Duley case because she had claimed they died in an accident.

Lewis’ claims, though, led to sending the AMBER Alert about five minutes before deputies found Harlee’s body. From a reporter’s point of view, it was maddening. Far more importantly, though, it should outrage every law enforcement officer and every parent. There are very, very stringent requirements for AMBER Alerts to be issued and Lewis’ claim fed all five criteria: 1) Law enforcement has to believe the child’s been abducted; 2) the child is (in most cases) 17 or younger; 3) all other possibilities for the child’s disappearance have been eliminated; 4) there’s sufficient information for the public to use about the victim, suspect or a vehicle; and 5) the child’s name and other critical data has been given to the National Crime Information Center.

All five have to be met. All five were, but criteria 1, 3 and 4 were tainted because Lewis lied, thus tainting the alert, which is why it was quickly retracted.

My fear is Lewis’ actions will affect cases where children truly have disappeared and parents are desperately trying to get them back. The poison’s been laid.

Even since the Smith and Duley cases, it’s been hard not to think twice about parental involvement in children’s deaths.
There’s no doubt Harlee’s death is a tragedy for her family. I hope they can, someday, find peace even though I know if I were them, it would be very, very hard for me.

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