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Key Witness Offers Startling Account of Slaying of Sheriff

Trial: Prosecution's hit man turned informant tells of the night that Derwin Brown was ambushed outside his home. The defense attacks his credibility.

June 27, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBANY, Ga. — The star witness of Georgia's sheriff-killing-sheriff trial took the stand Wednesday and offered a chilling picture of what happened the night Derwin Brown was assassinated.

Patrick Cuffy, who was a hit man turned informant, said that two gunmen were hiding in the bushes, he was in a car and another accomplice was down the street -- all ready to spring -- when recently elected Sheriff Brown came trotting up his driveway, arms full of presents and red roses for his wife. That's when one of the men pumped 12 shots into Brown with a TEC 9 handgun.

"He fell slowly, slowly. Like this," Cuffy said, closing his eyes and acting out the death while Brown's family watched in horror from 10 feet away.

Cuffy testified that the outgoing sheriff, Sidney Dorsey, ordered the hit because he wanted his power back.

"My mission was to follow through with what Mr. Dorsey asked," Cuffy said, "and that was to kill Derwin Brown."

But during an edgy cross-examination, a defense lawyer poked holes in Cuffy's previous version of events--and his credibility.

"You don't always tell the truth, do you, Mr. Cuffy?" asked attorney Brian Steel.

"Back then, no," he said.

Prosecutors had promised Cuffy's testimony would be a decisive moment in the case against Dorsey, the first black sheriff of DeKalb County, in suburban Atlanta.

Dorsey became a suspect immediately after Brown was cut down on Dec. 15, 2000--a brazen hit on a reform-minded politician that shook the Atlanta area--three days before he was to take office.

Brown, a well-liked police officer, had vowed to clean up the DeKalb Sheriff's Department. Dorsey, like several of his predecessors, was under investigation on corruption charges. Brown trounced him after a bitterly contested election.

Dorsey, 62, has said he had nothing to do with the killing.

Dozens of local and federal investigators joined the case. But despite one of the most expansive murder investigations in Georgia history, authorities had little evidence to go on but a handful of 9-millimeter shells.

Until they struck a deal with Cuffy.

In November, prosecutors granted full immunity to Cuffy, a former sheriff's deputy who was close to Dorsey, even though he admitted he helped plot the assassination. The crucial condition was that he testify truthfully.

In March, two other suspects, including alleged triggerman Melvin Walker, were acquitted after Cuffy testified against them.

Jurors said they thought Cuffy was lying.

His role as lead witness has created an anxious dynamic in a courtroom already laced with glares, tears and uncertainty. Brown's wife, sister and mother sat in the front rows Wednesday, sometimes crying, sometimes holding hands, with their hopes for justice resting on the square shoulders of a man who has said, at times almost boastfully, that he helped kill their loved one.

After Cuffy, 37, stumbled over details of statements he made earlier, defense attorney Steel asked: "It wasn't truthful what you shared with the police, was it?"

"No, not all of it," Cuffy replied.

In one exchange, Cuffy vehemently denied ever driving the getaway car. Then, five minutes later, he admitted he was wrong.

Cuffy also snapped at a defense lawyer using profane language, drawing a scolding from Judge Cynthia J. Becker. Steel also asked Cuffy whether he repeatedly listened to the reggae song "I Shot the Sheriff" after the assassination. Cuffy, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Croix, said, "Yeah, we played it, but it wasn't like we were blasting it throughout the house." He added that he is an avid reggae listener.

The trial is being held in Albany, a small town in the middle of cotton fields three hours south of Atlanta, because the judge feared publicity surrounding the case had tainted the Atlanta-area jury pool.

The trial is in its third week and is expected to continue for several more days. In addition to murder charges, Dorsey faces allegations that he solicited bribes, made a female contractor have sex with him and stole public resources.

On Wednesday, Dorsey sat in a dark suit studying Cuffy, who testified that at one point in his life, Dorsey "treated me like a son."

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