It is clearly a job nobody can do for over an hour or two, but Neal Pinkston, working in hand with precise professionals from the county’s auditing department, is intent on doing the right thing. As I watched a revolving team of four people at a time open and study envelopes of autopsy photographs on Tuesday, the scene would have made a fascinating television documentary.
But this was far from make-believe. As hands shuffled through the pictures in a spacious room at the Newell Tower, the prize was a smaller envelope, each taped securely with bright red tape with the word “Evidence” plain as day. In some of the “evidence,” there might be a bullet recovered by the medical examiner, a locket of another person’s hair, or even a fingernail sample that today’s modern technology could turn into a red-hot clue.
But none of this evidence ever made it to an investigator’s desk, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s labs in Nashville, or was displayed before a jury. Thousands of envelopes were abandoned between the 1970s and sometime around 2002 and recently discovered in a dusty room at the medical examiner’s office. As soon as Neal Pinkston, Hamilton County’s District Attorney General, heard the startling news, he had one thought: “My office is going to make this right.”
Late last year Mike Mathis, a ball of fire that supervises the DA’s Cold Case Unit, was at the medical examiner’s office when Allison Leitch, the glorious “Girl Wonder” of the ME team, said she needed to show him something. The minute Mike realized what a forgotten trove it truly was, he called Neal and said, “Are you sitting down?”
The District Attorney’s office immediately sprang into action, realizing the gargantuan task could mean so much to so many. What if evidence could lead to a killer, or free an innocent man from prison, or give a family the closure that relatives have sought for years? The ME envelopes each had a name but there was no database to connect to the case file.
That is, until Jenneth Randall – supervising the effort for the auditing department -- figured a way to match the autopsy records with the case records. “We thought we might recover 250-300 evidence envelopes but now I believe we will have over 500,” she told me. “I can’t say enough the way our department has responded but it is pretty gruesome to look through the pictures … we try to rotate people every two hours. But think about what this could mean to people …”
That is how Pinkston, so misunderstood by the City Council not long ago, wants to run the DA’s office. “We are here for the people. If somebody thinks this missing evidence will free a criminal, they are badly mistaken. If it were to free an innocent man, that would be a great day for our department.”
Melydia Clewell, Pinkston’s assistant who is far more than that, told me than in the space of 15 minutes, “General Pinkston and I went through a stack of these autopsies and found seven names we have identified as cold cases. That’s in 15 minutes! This could be incredible.”
Neal, how did this happen? “There could be a number of reasons. Somebody got lazy, the message wasn’t delivered, ‘We’ll do it tomorrow’ …. I don’t know and I don’t care. Forget it. I want to take what we can find and use it to move forward, as a success. What this is, really, is a huge opportunity we didn’t know existed.”
The county’s Cold Case Unit, I would venture without comparison, is one of the best in the South. Under the brilliant Mathis, the unit has already solved five cases in the time it took Detroit, for instance, to close three. “I live for this stuff,” said Mathis as he guided me though his office in the Newell Tower.
“The beauty of what Neal has done is set the cold-case unit under the district attorney. I’ve worked cold case for years, only to be pulled off for a more pressing investigation or what somebody felt was a bigger need. When Neal was recruiting me, I told him I wasn’t coming unless I had a district attorney I knew could get it done. Neal looked at me,” Mathis said with a smile breaking on his face, ‘I am your guy. That’s me.’”
An example of Mathis’ intensity: In a conference room within the cold-case maze must be 30 pictures of normal, everyday people, some smiling on a lake outing while others are seen laughing elsewhere. They are each a cold case victim and Mathis can not only tell you every name and the circumstances, but also about each of their lives in great detail. He can tell you how they were killed and, in several explanations, can tell you who he thinks did it based on evidence he still must solidify. The trick is to prove it.
“I was interviewing a subject about some other prostitutes he allegedly killed. I casually gave him another name,” he pointed to a pretty black girl, “and he angrily said, ‘I don’t kill any n***** whores.’ What struck me I had never mentioned race. How did this guy know she was black?”
As Mike was giving me an introductory course on cold-cases, Judge Don Poole in a courtroom a couple of blocks away, according to Chattanoogan.com, “ruled that the state can introduce at the murder trial of Billy Hawk testimony about his alleged drug involvement with the victim in the case, Johnny Mack Salyer.”
By happenstance, we had paused next to a folder at least a foot thick that said “Salyer-Hawk.” As a news junkie I knew what it was, with the trial upcoming, but Mathis said, “No, that’s discovery for the lawyers.” Then he walked me to another conference room where piles of evidence, maps and documents were in neat piles on three big tables. “This is that case,” he said of an alleged murder some 35 years ago.
Trust me, it will blow you away what Mathis and his cold-case team can do. Further, if you only knew how much Pinkston, his marvelous Melydia Clewell, and his office achieve every week you would know exactly why he was unopposed in his bid for the county’s district attorney general.
“We speak for the victims,” Melydia told me one day, “and while the cold-case office is so vitally important is because the victims can no longer speak. They still need a voice.”
Thank God for Neal Pinkston and his mission: “We will always do the right thing.”