COVINGTON - The Georgia State Conference of the NAACP is joining the family of Lanny Perry Barnes - the man who ran down a family, injuring four and killing a 2-year-old at the Covington McDonald's in May 2006 - in calling for an investigation of the Covington Police Department's handling of a protest by victims outside his funeral service.
A representative from the NAACP, along with about a dozen family members and friends, were on hand at Monday night's City Council meeting.
Barnes' sister, Manetta Clemons, said crimes committed against her family by Barnes' victims, Anita King and Stephanie Casola, and their supporters, are being covered up by the Police Department.
Clemons said Barnes' life sentence was completed the day he died and, "I deserved to be able to bury my brother in a peaceful, dignified manner."
But during his funeral on July 2 at Grace United Methodist Church, protesters held up signs reading "Today the world is a better place," and "Child Murderer," and, Clemons said, yelled at family members who drove past.
Clemons alleged the protesters violated numerous state and local laws while Police Chief Stacey Cotton and a police captain looked on, including protesting within 500 feet of where the funeral service was being held. They also held signs that contained "fighting words" and shouted fighting words at family members, she said.
State law prohibits displaying visual images that convey fighting words; uttering loud, threatening or abusive language; singing, chanting, whistling or yelling; or conducting a public assembly or demonstration within 500 feet of a site being used for a funeral or memorial service. The law applies during the service and one hour prior to and after the service.
Clemons alleged the protesters followed the family to the burial site at West Cemetery.
The next day, family members discovered signs left on Barnes' grave that Clemons said were identical to the ones held by protesters. Clemons believes the protesters put the signs on the graves and alleges they were criminally trespassing. She said neighbors told her they saw people in the graveyard with flashlights the night of the funeral.
CPD officers removed them and gave the family a case number and the family put up "No Trespassing" signs, Clemons said.
However, Clemons said when the family contacted Capt. Ken Malcom and Cotton to get a police report, she said they were told there had not been a report filed because no crime had occurred. Clemons said she was told that if the signs were placed on the grave again, the CPD would consider it a crime, but would not at that time.
Clemons said numerous attempts to get a police report were refused and she was told the CPD had destroyed the signs they confiscated, which she alleged was destruction of evidence.
Clemons alleged both Malcom and Cotton told her, "We just want to see this go away."
Cotton, who attended Monday's meeting, said he would not comment given that there is an ongoing investigation into the matter.
Clemons said that after failing to make headway with police, she wrote to District Attorney Ken Wynne regarding the placement of signs on the grave and requested an investigation into the CPD.
Wynne said Tuesday that he has jurisdiction over criminal violation of state laws and does not have jurisdiction over county or municipal violations.
He said there is no state law addressing placement of signs on a grave site. It is a crime to deface a marker or monument or disturb the contents of the grave, which was not done in this case, he said. The alleged trespassing took place before the posting of the "No Trespassing" signs and does not constitute criminal trespassing, he said.
Wynne said since no charges could be filed related to the signs, the CPD did not break the law by destroying them because they are not evidence.
"The investigation into the Police Department's handling of this matter is closed," he said.
Wynne said he is now investigating whether protesters were within 500 feet of the funeral site. That complaint was not included in Clemons' original letter, Wynne said.
"That's the statute we're reviewing to see if it has any application to this case," he said.
Wynne said even if protesters are found to have violated the law, the officers present that day would not be held liable.
"The officers' intent was certainly to maintain peace and order and at the same time recognize the constitutional right of people to assemble, and I think they tried to do that within the framework of the city code as well as the federal and state constitutions," he said.
But John Evans, president and CEO of Operation LEAD - Leadership to End All Discrimination - out of Lithonia, said the Police Department appears to be covering up crimes against Barnes' family.
"If it had been reversed, they would have locked us up before we got on the street ... They would have locked us up if it were blacks picketing a white funeral," he told the City Council.
Edward O. DuBose, president Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called for the city to investigate the alleged violations by the CPD and Casola, King and their supporters.
"Our organization will not let this go ... We will not stop until we feel justice has been served," DuBose said.
Mayor Kim Carter said the City Council is not a court of law and the family may need to seek a resolution elsewhere, such as with the District Attorney or state Attorney General. She recommended, however that the family write down their grievances and any requests for action by the city and submit them to City Attorney Ed Crudup.
"We definitely want to do the right thing," said City Councilman Mike Whatley. "These signs that say 'City of Excellence' and 'City of Ethics' didn't come from nothing. They didn't come because we see color, because we don't."
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said though it may not be the popular response, she believes the solution will come from prayer.
"Sometimes we have to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes in order to know from whence they came and that's true for both families," she said, adding that the entire community should pray for both families to get closure.
Councilwoman Ocie Franklin told the family that, "If you're going to get closure, you have to let go and let God ... I think you want somebody held accountable for what happened."
During her statement, many family members walked out of the council room.
Outside the council chambers, DuBose spoke on behalf of the family.
"Our issue does not lessen the grief of the family members on the other side. Our prayers and condolences (go to them). Our issue is that they cannot take the law into their own hands," he said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.