Surry County prosecutors handling of evidence questioned in alleged home invasion case

By Terri Flagg -

Court documents in the case of a Winston-Salem man accused of participating in a State Road home invasion reveal allegations made by the defense that prosecutors mishandled evidence.

Habib Cooper Jah, 35, of Carver School Road, pleaded guilty Monday in Superior Court to felony breaking and entering and larceny of a firearm as part of a plea agreement reached with the district attorney’s office shortly after the trial began.

A charge of first degree burglary was reduced to breaking and entering and charges of kidnapping, second degree kidnapping, an additional charge of first degree burglary and larceny after breaking and entering were dismissed.

The charges stemmed from two incidents in 2014 involving the same victims, Howard Bernard and Lou Jean Jackson, an elderly couple who were home, restrained and robbed during one of the break-ins. Howard Bernard was seriously injured in the incident, according to court records, and Lou Jean Jackson died two months later, though her cause of death has not been included in any of the charges.

On the morning the trial began, Presiding Judge Richard Gottlieb heard pretrial motions by both parties, including a motion to dismiss brought by the defense.

Jah’s attorney Karen Adams argued that she’d only recently become aware of certain pieces of evidence that stood to help her client’s case on Nov. 18.

That evidence included a cell phone belonging to a co-defendant testifying for the state and items seized during a search of the defendant’s house that hadn’t been logged as evidence.

According to Adams, that evidence should have been disclosed during the discovery process but she learned of it through discussions with the investigator, J.D. Briles of the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, though Assistant District Attorney Quentin Harris confirmed on Nov. 20 that the evidence contradicted statements made by their witness.

During a Nov. 23, Harris confirmed that shoes seized in the search did not match a footprint taken at the scene, but that Briles would testify as such, according to Adams.

The defense counsel’s final allegation involved the co-defendant’s cell phone records which were published to an online discovery database by the State Bureau of Investigation, which Adams was made aware of on Nov. 25 at 4 p.m.

Those records revealed that two calls had been made from the cell phone after it had been placed in the custody of the sheriff’s office, one on Sept. 21 and one on Nov. 23.

“The failure of law enforcement agencies to produce this discovery in a timely manner has placed the defendant in a position of substantial prejudice and irrefutable harm,” Adams stated in the motion.

“In spite of their special access to this information, no member of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department mentioned any of this information in any of their reports in this case.”

Before Gottlieb ruled on the motion, the court was recessed for lunch, and the parties reached a plea agreement by the time court reconvened.

Jah was sentenced to two consecutive active sentences of 10- to 20- months with 559 days credit for time served.

The co-defendants in the case are scheduled to appear in Superior Court in January 2016.

By Terri Flagg

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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