Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsMurders

The Nation

Lust for Power Cited as Murder Motive

Courts: 'He could not let go,' says prosecutor as trial opens for former Georgia sheriff accused of murdering the man who defeated him.

June 18, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBANY, Ga. — Sidney Dorsey was a man poisoned by the power he held, prosecutors said Monday, and when that power was stripped away, he decided to kill to get it back.

Dorsey, the first black sheriff of DeKalb County, is accused of assassinating his political rival. As his trial opened, prosecutors offered a portrait of a man totally out of control--one who allegedly made deputies run errands for his children, forced a woman to have sex with him and ran the jailhouse like a medieval fiefdom.

"Power," began prosecutor Kenneth B. Hodges III. "That's what this case is all about. A man so consumed by power that he could not--would not--let go."

The murder of Sheriff-Elect Derwin Brown has been the No. 1 mystery in the Atlanta area since he was gunned down in his driveway on Dec. 15, 2000--three days before he was to take office.

The 46-year-old Brown, who too was black, had defeated Dorsey in a bitterly contested runoff election. From the earliest hours of the murder investigation, Dorsey was the prime suspect. If convicted, he could get life in prison without parole; prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

Dorsey, 62, a former homicide cop with a reputation for being tough but good, has maintained his innocence. He has not commented since his November arrest, but said during an earlier interview with The Times that he feared being set up.

"It was all political. I was the first black sheriff. I opened business to black firms," Dorsey said. "They wanted to bring me down."

Who?

"The system."

This isn't the first time Dorsey has been accused of killing someone; he shot one man in the line of duty in 1965, and another during a fight at a gas station in 1970. In each case, an investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.

In addition to charging Dorsey with Brown's murder, prosecutors have invoked a rarely used state racketeering law in alleging that the former sheriff stole public resources, took bribes and forced the female owner of a bail bond company to have sex with him.

The trial was moved to Albany, three hours south of Atlanta, because a judge decided pretrial publicity made selecting a fair jury there impossible.

The state's murder charge rests primarily on the stocky shoulders of a thug-turned-snitch. Patrick Cuffy confessed to helping kill Brown and, in exchange for his testimony, received only a year in jail.

When he takes the witness stand here, the ex-Marine, former sheriff's deputy and trusted Dorsey protege is expected to recount how Dorsey ordered the hit--handing him a note on a yellow piece of paper saying: "Kill Derwin Brown." Dorsey planned to become sheriff again once Brown was out of the way, Cuffy has said.

But during the March trial of two accused accomplices, Cuffy's testimony fell flat. It took jurors just four hours to acquit Melvin Walker and alleged triggerman David Ramsey; members of the jury later said they didn't trust Cuffy.

The current trial involves many of the same witnesses and evidence. It is expected to last a month.

The possibility of another acquittal terrifies Brown's family, who sat grim-faced in the front row of the courtroom Monday.

"Just coming through the door makes my heart skip," said his mother, Burvena Brown.

"I didn't know they were allowed to lie in there," seethed Phyllis Brown, his widow, as she stood on the courthouse steps during a break.

She was referring to the opening defense statement, which sketched Dorsey's life--starting with a 1945 train ride that relocated a poor boy from New York City to Decatur, Ga.

From there, it was hard work--cleaning toilets for school fees, joining the Army, putting himself through college and law school while a cop--that propelled Dorsey to the peak of the law enforcement pyramid.

Yes, defense attorney Brian Steel conceded, there might have been some excesses along the way. "Like most politicians, Sidney Dorsey rewarded people who had worked on his campaign," Steel said.

As for allegations that Dorsey made on-duty sheriff's deputies take his son to Toys "R" Us and drive the family to Disney World, Steel said: "Though it seems distasteful, you will learn it is legal. To be sheriff is to be sheriff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And the employees work for you."

After opening statements, the prosecution called its first witnesses--a medical expert who testified about Brown's bullet wounds, then the current sheriff, who began to detail some of the abuses he had discovered in the department when he took office.

As sheriff of DeKalb County, Dorsey was in charge of jail operations. The position traditionally enjoys wide discretion in awarding contracts, and that autonomy has spelled trouble in the past. Every DeKalb sheriff since 1964 has been investigated, indicted or imprisoned before his term ended.

Dorsey was elected in 1996, and Brown ousted him in August 2000. Brown, also a career cop, had run on a campaign promise to clean up the department and illuminate past abuses.

"And he paid for it with his own blood," said his sister Renee.

Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this report.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|