Families urge victim protection

By Chris Berendt - [email protected]
Police Officers Sean Clark, left, and Jeff Shelton were killed in the line of duty April 1, 2007. -

Sean Clark, a young father who found his passion in life as a police officer serving and protecting the people, was struck down one night in early April a decade ago, he and his partner Jeff Shelton the victims of an ambush as they left a domestic disturbance call.

His family was left heartbroken, with no answers, no closure. It was more than three years before the killer was brought to justice with two consecutive life sentences and, throughout the whole ordeal, not a word was uttered by the man who took the lives of Clark, 34, and Shelton, 35, on April 1, 2007.

It was 4 a.m. that day when two officers and a chaplain showed up on the doorsteps to Sean Clark’s parents’ home in Sampson County, where they had moved from Charlotte just a year earlier to be closer to their daughter.

“To this day, we still do not know why,” said Sean’s father Bob Clark in an interview with The Sampson Independent. “(The killer) had nothing to do with the domestic dispute. Why he was even there was questionable. There is no closure.”

Clark has felt his anger, hurt and frustration festering for 10 years. When a ceremony was held last month to mark the 10-year anniversary of his son’s death, Clark dragged himself to the site of his boy’s death for the first time to confront the raw emotions he still felt, the pain as fresh as ever.

“There’s a lot that bothers me, and I’ve kept it in,” said a candid Clark, a U.S. Navy veteran. “I really did not want to be there at the 10th anniversary because I had not been back there since the night it happened. I knew I had to go back or this thing would totally consume me.”

Officers with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department paid tribute to their fallen brothers in a beautiful display, but it wasn’t long before a damper fell over the remembrance. Clark discovered the very next day that the killer, Demetrius Montgomery, had been moved to Albemarle Correctional Institute, just 40 miles from the scene of the crime.

Clark said he went “totally ballistic.”

The family had received no notification that Montgomery had been moved, and that his status was changed from maximum security to medium, which allowed him to get a basic job.

“These moves are simply unacceptable to the victims’ families,” Clark stated. “No notifications to the families have ever been given since day one. There seems to be a very serious flaw in the system that needs to be corrected.”

“Why is a murderer and a cop killer being considered less dangerous and being classified as anything less than maximum security?”

Montgomery had been moved a total of five times, every time with no notification given to the victims’ families, despite paperwork filed with the court saying families would be informed, Clark said. He understands prisoners have to be moved, but said victims and their families need to be in the loop.

N.C. Department of Public Safety prison officials told Clark there was no state legislation that required them to notify victims of a change in an inmate’s status or location. There is a function within the Department of Corrections to be informed after a change is made — the Clarks now get those alerts — but nothing that would allow them to give input prior to the move.

“We, as victims, should have a say in this process. Our input should be considered important in the decision making that directly impacts us as victims,” Clark said. “The hard, cold reality is at some point in your life you will be a victim of some type of crime. Our families are victims of a crime and victims of the system, but that is hopefully about to change.”

Marsy’s Law and state push

A fire has been lit under Clark, a proponent of Marsy’s Law for All, which seeks to extend the same rights to crime victims as those accused and convicted already have.

N.C. House Bill 551: “Strengthening Victims Rights” and its sister bill, N.C. Senate Bill 595, filed last month and co-sponsored by Senator Brent Jackson, incorporates Marsy’s victim advocacy and calls for the state constitution to be amended “to provide better protections and safeguards to victims.”

HB 551 has already passed and SB 595 is yet to be considered.

“This bill is designed to define and uphold your rights as a victim,” Clark attested. “It is very specific. Right now, the laws that are in effect are extremely vague. Without legislation, there’s not much more that we, as victims, can do.”

The U.S. Constitution and every state constitution has enumerated rights for individuals accused of a crime and those convicted of a crime. Yet, the U.S. Constitution and 15 state constitutions do not extend enumerated rights to victims of crime. Marsy’s Law for All seeks to amend state constitutions that don’t offer protections to crime victims to give them rights equal to those already afforded to the accused and convicted — nothing more, nothing less.

Efforts are underway in North Carolina and eight other states to extend those rights for victims. Advocates of Marsy’s Law say it is not a partisan issue, but a universal one.

“I’m not the only person angry about this,” said Clark. “As I have researched this I have found there are others out there in similar situations with the same anger. That is why Marsy’s Law for North Carolina is so important to me. It’s intended to strengthen the rights of crime victims … and puts us on, at the very least, an even playing field with criminals.”

Clark railed on how unbalanced that field seems to be, with a criminal confined at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000 in taxpayer funds each year, “being allowed to mingle with the general population, watch TV, have visitors, phone calls and work in the prison system making money without a care in the world.” He called it “totally unacceptable.”

Such legislation would ensure that victims of violent crime be treated with respect and dignity by the criminal justice system, that courts consider the safety of victims and families when setting bail and release conditions and that family members have legal standing in bail hearings, pleas, sentencing and parole hearings.

In recent weeks, Clark’s pleas about Montgomery, specifically, did not fall on deaf ears. He spoke with Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer about his concerns. A letter was then written by District Attorney R. Andrew Murray to George Solomon, director of N.C. Prisons, about the status of Montgomery just last month.

“Both of the victims’ families have contacted the District Attorney’s Office and are distraught this inmate is being housed in a medium security facility in their hometown,” Murray informed Solomon in the letter, dated April 24, 2017.

He told Solomon that he understood the Department of Corrections had the discretion to house the inmate in the manner they saw fit, but explained the circumstances behind this particular objection.

He detailed how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers Sean Clark and Jeff Shelton were executed, how they never had the chance to draw their weapons and defend themselves and how Montgomery “feigned mental illness throughout his trial and never took responsibility for his actions.”

The way in which Montgomery, a man convicted to consecutive life sentences, is treated is something other prisoners will notice, the district attorney noted. He referred to the “vile nature” of Montgomery’s crimes, requesting he be held in a maximum security facility “with as little contact with other inmates as possible.”

“It does not sit well with me for this inmate to be seen by other inmates making money, going to the commissary and enjoying other privileges,” Murray stated. “Being in anything less than a maximum security facility may send a message to other inmates that the Department of Adult Corrections does not take what this inmate did seriously enough.”

The district attorney urged Solomon to reclassify Montgomery and return him to a maximum security facility.

“The murder of two police officers is an attack on our system of law and order,” Murray stated. “Treating a cop killer the same as other inmates, in my opinion, sends a bad message. It makes it more dangerous for your corrections officers whose very lives depend on inmates having some respect for the uniform.”

Clark said Montgomery was moved on May 9 to Nash County, but remains in medium security. He credited public support and pressure placed on the prison system for the movement, calling it their way of easing the tension.

However, he said his fight is far from over. Others will face similar hardships and that is why the Marsy’s Law and the proposed legislation in the N.C. General Assembly is so vital.

In addition to his parents Bob and Elona, Sean left behind wife Sherry and their sons, Brayden and Westin, as well as siblings Kimberly and Scott. Sherry was seven months pregnant with Westin when her husband was killed.

“What they bring back to me is good memories — (Brayden) is the spitting image of his father and (Westin) acts just like me,” Clark said with a wry smile.

He said families that have loved ones taken from them, and who are forced to deal with that hurt the rest of their lives, need to be protected.

“This is something that I am very passionate about and I believe what’s happened to us really does not need to happen to somebody else,” the father and grandfather said. “We’re still going through it. Heaven forbid this should ever happen to anybody else, but at least maybe they can get something in place that will protect their rights a little more.”

Police Officers Sean Clark, left, and Jeff Shelton were killed in the line of duty April 1, 2007.
https://www.clintonnc.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/web1_Clark-mug.jpgPolice Officers Sean Clark, left, and Jeff Shelton were killed in the line of duty April 1, 2007.
Sampson man, father of slain officer, leads push to strengthen victims’ rights

By Chris Berendt

[email protected]

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.