Wilkins convicted in phony-records case, gets minimum 18 months in prison

  • In US
  • 2022-12-10 04:59:00Z
  • By Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C.

Dec. 9-RALEIGH - Former Granville County Sheriff Brindell Wilkins will spend at least the next 18 months in state prison in connection with his role in the falsification of his office's training records, a state judge ruled.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway's ruling came after a Wake County jury on Thursday convicted Wilkins of six counts of felony obstruction of justice and six counts of obtaining property by false pretenses.

The convictions formally end Wilkins' career in law enforcement, and presuming they survive an appeal, they also mean he can never again run for sheriff unless he someday receives an "unconditional pardon of innocence" from North Carolina's state's governor.

"This case is about trust and honesty and integrity," Ridgeway told Wilkins before pronouncing sentence. "It strikes me that you have risen to the top of your community in many ways. But to those whom much is given, much is expected."

Wilkins became the second Granville sheriff's official imprisoned in connection with the falsification of training records, following former Sgt. Chad Coffey's conviction in February on a dozen obstruction of justice charges. Two other former deputies, Sherwood Boyd and Keith Campbell, still face charges.

Coffey was sentenced to five to 15 months in prison, and N.C. Department of Public Safety records show he was released in July, five months to the day of his conviction. He remains on probation.

For sentencing, Ridgeway arranged the charges against Wilkins into four groups, and then gave him three consecutive active prison sentences of six to 17 months in prison. Combined, that amounts to 18 to 51 months.

The judge opted against imposing an active prison sentence for the fourth group of charges and for them gave Wilkins 24 months of supervised probation.

Jurors needed only about 83 minutes on Thursday to arrive at their verdict.

The facts of the case were not in significant dispute, with the exhibits and witness list being much the same as in Coffey's trial. Boyd and Campbell testified against their former boss; Wilkins was the only defense witness.

Coffey - who as head of the sheriff's training program signed phony class-attendance and shooting qualifications for Wilkins, Boyd and a couple other deputies - did not testify.

Wilkins conceded during Coffey's trial that he ordered the falsification, which spanned six years.

As a law-enforcement veteran and a busy sheriff, "he did not like and did not think he should have to go to class when he already knew it all and could do [the classwork] on his own," Thomas Manning, Wilkins' lawyer, told jurors on Thursday.

"He and Sherwood Boyd have both testified that they read the material and they took the tests," Manning said. "They didn't ignore their personal obligation of wanting to stay current."

The case comes down to "your judgment about whether he had the requisite intent to break the law," he added.

Wake County prosecutors - handling the case because Granville sheriff's officials sent the phony training records to state regulators in Raleigh - said Wilkins' guilt was clear-cut.

"When you have forged documents for years, that's your intent," said Assistant District Attorney Katy Pomeroy. "You have a confession, you have the evidence, that burden has been met beyond a reasonable doubt. This defendant is guilty. Your role is to decide only that. Your role is not to decide whether a person is a good person or a bad person. Good people do bad things sometimes."

Beyond that, it's a matter of the public's trust in law enforcement, Pomeroy said, noting that police and sheriff's deputies have to sign for everything from training records to arrest warrants.

"It's just paperwork? No sir, it's your word and it should mean something," she said. "As a law enforcement officer, your word has incredible power."

Wilkins listened impassively as the court clerk read the verdict on each of the 12 counts. Manning then asked Ridgeway to have her poll jurors individually, and the judge agreed.

Each juror stood in turn and answered for each count, a string of 144 yeses coming first from Juror No. 7, the foreman, and concluding with Juror No. 12 to underscore the panel's unanimity.

Manning gave notice of appeal, and argued for a probationary sentence on the basis of mitigating factors that included Wilkins' reputation as a "person of good character" in his community, his support of his family, his "non-compensated good works" for churches and other community groups, and his "very strong support system."

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman countered that Wilkins should get at least the same sentence as Coffey.

"What this case shows has really been a pattern of someone who perhaps started off working on behalf of this community and quite frankly at some point lost his way," she said.

But Wilkins "has consistently challenged and tried to undermine those who would call him to task for the things he has done," Freeman said.

And she added that the Wake County court system, because of the presence of state agencies in Raleigh, has first crack at prosecuting many governmental corruption cases in North Carolina and with it the "responsibility for setting the standard" about what's acceptable and what isn't.

Jurors passed up the chance to reduce the obstruction-of-justice charges against Wilkins to misdemeanors, an option available if they felt there wasn't proof he acted with deceit or the intent to defraud.

The main difference between the Wilkins and Coffey verdicts was the finding of guilt on the obtaining property by false pretenses charges. Coffey was accused of that also, but his jury only convicted him on the obstruction counts.

Thursday's verdict and sentencing doesn't end Wilkins' legal troubles.

He continues to face obstruction charges in connection with alleged murder plot targeting former Granville Sheriff's Deputy Joshua Freeman. He's also been accused of obstruction and willful failure to discharge his duties over the office's screening of pistol-purchase permits and tracking of evidence.

Jurisdiction for those cases lies in Granville County, whose district attorney, Mike Waters, has recused himself. Wake prosecutors were once set to stand in, but Freeman said she's asked the N.C. Conference of District Attorney to deal with them instead.

Wake prosecutors still, however, have to bring the cases against Boyd and Campbell to a conclusion. Both have been on hold pending the outcome of the Coffey and Wilkins trials.

"Obviously, they've been cooperating throughout this portion of the investigation of the case," Freeman said of the two deputies. "I assume we will make some effort to resolve those. I now anticipate they will be resolved. But we've waited for all this to play out before we've made any offers to resolve those cases."

She added that Wake prosecutors had "made efforts" to resolve the Wilkins records-falsification case, but he "insisted that he wanted the matter to go to trial."

"He was certainly entitled to do that," she said.

Wilkins was suspended from office in 2019 but continued to hold the title of sheriff until Monday, when Granville County's new sheriff, Robert Fountain Jr., the winner of the 2022 election, took the oath of office.

John Hardy and Charles Noblin had been the appointed stand-ins as sheriff at different times while Wilkins was suspended.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.


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