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Jury Gets Case of Georgia Sheriff Accused of Murder

Crime: Prosecutor cites power as lawman's motive in slaying of his successor. The defense likens the trial to those given to Salem witches.


ALBANY, Ga. — When J. Tom Morgan leveled his finger at Sidney Dorsey's chest in court on Monday, it was the closest the two men had come to a face-to-face confrontation.

Dorsey, a man once celebrated for being the first black sheriff of suburban De Kalb County, stood accused of assassinating his rival. Morgan, the district attorney, had been pursuing him for the last year and a half.

"This man," Morgan said, his voice beginning to crack, "this man was the only person in the whole wide universe who had the motive to gun down Sheriff-Elect Derwin Brown. Why? Because he was so obsessed with power."

The stare-down was an intense finale to the prosecution's closing arguments. Just before that, Dorsey's attorney, Brian Steel, called the case "a witch hunt."

"Sidney Dorsey is not a killer. He's been manipulated. This is like going back to the Salem witch trials and throwing people into a lake and seeing if they drown."

Facing Life in Prison

For the last month, many people in De Kalb County and the surrounding Atlanta metro area have been closely following Dorsey's case. The once-popular sheriff faces life in prison if he is found guilty of arranging to kill Brown.

Brown, also black, had defeated Dorsey in an acrimonious election after vowing to clean up the De Kalb Sheriff's Department. Dorsey, like several of his predecessors, was under investigation on corruption charges.

Immediately after Brown was shot to death in his driveway on Dec. 15, 2000, Morgan began circling Dorsey. He checked his alibis, put his house under surveillance and pushed a grand jury to connect the corruption investigation with the killing. But Morgan, in his third term as De Kalb's district attorney, didn't find much evidence and was criticized for an investigation that didn't lead to any arrests for almost a year.

The break came in November when Morgan persuaded a former protege of Dorsey to testify against him. Patrick Cuffy, a thickly built sheriff's deputy, said he was among four men Dorsey assigned to kill Brown. In exchange for testifying against Dorsey, Cuffy was granted total immunity and even asked for reward money (which nobody has given him yet).

On top of murder charges, Dorsey faces 14 counts of racketeering, bribery, theft and abuse of power allegations. Dorsey, 62, has said he had nothing to do with the killing. He did not testify.

Prosecutors called more than 50 witnesses, including ex-lovers, pastors, former employees and former friends who detailed alleged abuses of power, including the murder plot.

The defense fired back, often colorfully. One lawyer, Don Samuel, slipped into a velvet smoking jacket during a cross-examination to show that a woman who had accused Dorsey of raping her had given him many gifts.

Later, Steel asked Cuffy whether he repeatedly played the popular Bob Marley song "I Shot the Sheriff" after Brown was killed, implying that Cuffy was celebrating Brown's death.

The prosecution's main message was that Dorsey was corrupt and wanted Brown dead because he didn't want his crooked ways to be exposed.

"Sidney Dorsey turned proud, trained deputies into chauffeurs, baby-sitters and go-cart fetchers," said prosecutor John Petrey. "He turned sheriff vehicles into taxicabs. He just wanted to strut and flaunt and show people how powerful he was."

The defense was more philosophical.

"The decision you make here will be one of the most important decisions of your life," defense lawyer Samuel said.

He downplayed allegations of corruption, telling the jury: "Your job is not to deliberate questions of morality or judgment, but questions of law."

Credibility Challenged

The sharpest words were saved for Cuffy.

The former deputy, who said Dorsey had treated him like a son, testified that shortly after Dorsey lost the election, he handed Cuffy a note that read, "Kill Derwin Brown." Dorsey then ate the note, written on a full-sized sheet of paper, Cuffy said.

But defense attorney Steel poked holes in several parts of Cuffy's testimony and told jurors during his final argument: "Patrick Cuffy is not truthful. You have a reasonable doubt right there."

The 11 women and one man in the jury box sat with granite faces, giving little insight into what they were thinking. They began deliberating later Monday.

In March, two other suspects, including alleged trigger man Melvin Walker, were acquitted after Cuffy testified against them. Jurors said they thought Cuffy was lying.

But this trial has been longer and included many more witnesses than the last one. It's being held in Albany, a small town in the middle of cotton fields three hours south of Atlanta, because the judge feared that publicity surrounding the case had tainted the Atlanta-area jury pool.

On Monday, Morgan left the jury with the words, "Do it for Derwin." But not before he reminded them that although he works in the big city upstate, he was born and raised right here in Albany.

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