More MS news articles for July 2002

State: if Space unfit for trial, he's unfit for sheriff

Prosecutor asks a judge to skip trial, remove suspended Effingham County sheriff from office after his lawyers say their client isn't competent to stand trial.

Saturday, July 20, 2002
By Don Lowery
for the Savannah Morning News

If Jay Space is not mentally competent to stand trial, as his lawyers suggest, the suspended Effingham Sheriff also isn't fit to perform his duties.

That was the argument of a state prosecutor who on Friday asked a Superior Court judge to order Space's removal from office before the case goes to trial.

"Space agrees he is not competent -- that's why we are here," said Assistant District Attorney Tony May.

The second-term sheriff announced last summer that he has multiple sclerosis. Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney Joe Martin alleges in a removal petition filed July 10 that illness and drug abuse have incapacitated the sheriff for the past 18 months.

Jury selection for a trial on Space's removal is currently scheduled to begin July 30.

At Friday's hearing before Judge William E. Woodrum Jr., defense attorneys requested a 30-day continuance. Among their supporting arguments was that their client is currently unfit to stand trial.

May turned that argument against his opponents, asking Woodrum to issue a directed verdict in the case -- circumventing a trial altogether.

"The defense's contention that he is not competent to stand trial is an admission of the state's allegation," May said. "(Space) is unable to help prepare a defense and he is unable to run the sheriff's department.

"We both agree he is incompetent, so the court should rule to remove him."

Defense attorney Bobby Phillips countered that his client's incapacitation is not permanent. Phillips said Space, who was not at Friday's hearing, is in treatment for his illness and could improve significantly.

He cited a March letter from a Savannah neurologist stating Space was able to drive a car and perform the functions of his job at that time.

"Sheriff Space is under a lot of stress and has been affected by it," Phillips said. "He may not be able to stand trial at the moment, but we are hopeful his condition will improve because of the treatment he is receiving."

Judge Woodrum said he would rule Monday on the defense lawyers' motion for a 30-day continuance and other procedural matters.

Defense lawyers have until Friday to file a written response to May's request that the judge issue a directed verdict.

Filed July 10, the petition to remove the 40-year-old Space alleges that multiple sclerosis and drug abuse have incapacitated the sheriff over the last 18 months.

That same day, Space was arrested and charged with five felony drug violations for allegedly buying more than 4,000 prescription pills over the Internet during the past 13 months.

The actions followed months of controversy over Space's performance, ultimately leading to his suspension in June.

Acting at the request of the Georgia Sheriff's Association and the Effingham County Commission, Gov. Roy Barnes on June 5 appointed a committee of two sheriffs and the state attorney general to investigate allegations that Space's illness was scarring his ability to perform his duties.

After interviewing 17 witnesses, the investigators recommended that Barnes suspend Space. The governor responded June 18 with a 60-day suspension - the longest allowed by law. It can be extended an extra 30 days.

After reviewing the investigators' work, Martin, the district attorney, conducted his own investigation, which resulted in the petition for removal and the drug charges.

Space is free on $10,000 bond on the drug charges. No criminal hearings have been set.

Copyright 2002 Savannah Morning News