SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A judge's decision to dismiss charges against a Savannah man accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl has shocked the victim's family.
The mother of Ashleigh Moore said she can hardly believe the case may never go to trial. A Chatham County Superior Court judge on Wednesday ruled the charges against Bobby Lavon Buckner must be dismissed because constant delays and reports of vanishing evidence have violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial.
"It's been ten years and a lot of diligence," the slain girl's mother, Michelle Moore, told WTOC-TV (http://bit.ly/JHHWVn). "I thought we were making progress. I'm lost for words, really."
Buckner, a convicted child molester, was Moore's live-in boyfriend when young Ashleigh went missing from her Savannah home in March 2003. Her body was found a month later by a man fishing along the Savannah River. While Buckner was jailed immediately for violating his probation, he was not charged in Ashleigh's death until 2007.
Nearly five years later, 36-year-old Buckner will go free without ever facing trial for the slaying if Judge Penny Haas Freesemann's ruling stands. Prosecutors have 30 days to appeal the judge's decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.
"There are no words to describe how I feel. I am just ready for it to be over," said Ashleigh's sister, Montranace Woodard. "It's been so long and so hard. I wanted it to be over, but not like this. I don't want him to get away with what he did."
The judge's ruling noted Buckner had more than 10 trial dates scheduled and was indicted a total of three times, yet prosecutors were never ready to bring his case before a jury. Last year, prosecutors announced - for the first time since Buckner was charged in December 2007 - that they planned to seek the death penalty. That essentially forced a reboot of the entire case, with Buckner needing new attorneys with capital trial experience. More than 100 pretrial motions were filed before prosecutors backed off their decision to seek death four months later.
Buckner's defense attorneys said prosecutors seized on Buckner as their suspect because of his history of sex crimes, but they lacked evidence to convict him for Ashleigh's death.
"I can see why they're looking at him," Newell Hamilton, Buckner's lead defense lawyer, told The Associated Press. "But I say: What's the physical evidence tying him to this case? And there's none."
District Attorney Larry Chisolm's office said last week that prosecutors will review the case and consult with Ashleigh's family before deciding whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Buckner remains in prison on convictions for statutory rape, sexual exploitation of a child and other charges unrelated to Ashleigh's slaying. The state Department of Corrections says his sentence won't expire until April 2016. His attorneys say the soonest he could be released on parole would be 2014.