DA opens up, answers questions about case and connections
District Attorney Tony Buckley grins, looks down and shakes his head before answering a question about “the elephant in the room.”
The cleanup of the garage after the shooting of Katherine Sinclair is the most “complicated issue” of the case that’s weighed on him like a pachyderm for the last five months. He talked about that and other issues during a wide-ranging interview about her death and the arrest and indictment of Greg Burroughs for manslaughter.
“It became an issue on social media,” Buckley said of the cleanup, which was brought to light by the Leader-Call. “A lot of people who weren’t there believe there was some magic bullet there in the garage … but my question is, what do I not have that I need?”
The gun was recovered, the deadly projectile was recovered from a wall in the garage, the car Sinclair was in was taken to a secure garage before being transported to the crime lab, Buckley said.
“I’m not missing anything I need to make the case,” he said. “I have everything I need.”
There’s high-quality body-cam footage from the first Laurel police officers on the scene and more than 300 photos of the inside of the home and garage, “but the crime scene is the interior of the car,” Buckley said.
The shooting on the night of June 1 in the gated community of Windermere was first reported as a suicide, and first-responders were focused on trying to save Sinclair, who was clinging to life after being shot in the head.
“That’s what you have to remember,” Buckley said. “We didn’t have all of the information then that we have now.”
He credited Laurel police for picking up on “some red flags” and questioning Burroughs further about what happened that night. While he was at the police station, his family and friends cleaned up blood and glass from the garage of his almost half-million-dollar home.
“I have no proof that someone said it was OK to clean up,” Buckley said, adding that he has gone over transcripts and viewed body-cam video. Sources with knowledge of the case have said that Lt. Shannon Caraway told the family and friends they could clean up. A DVD titled “Caraway-Sinclair” was with Buckley’s stack of files on the case. DA investigator Wayne Black had already left the scene by that time, Buckley said.
The people who did the cleaning weren’t culpable because “they believed it was a suicide,” he added.
Either way, it doesn’t matter, Buckley insists.
“It’s not a problem for the presentation of our case,” he said.
Even though there is no “magic bullet,” as Buckley said, he believes he has plenty of ammo to prosecute Burroughs. Though he wouldn’t talk specifically about strategy for the trial, he hinted that Burroughs’ own statements were more incriminating than any physical evidence that was collected and sent to crime labs around the state.
When asked if he can win the case, Buckley paused and said, “Of course … I can make a heck of a good argument. He should be tried and a jury should decide if he’s guilty.”
The trial is set for June 6, but it won’t likely happen that soon. That’s because the only piece of evidence that’s missing is also the most crucial — the state pathologist’s autopsy report. Though he received an oral report saying the cause of death as “Undetermined,” it’s taking an average of a year for written reports to be completed.
“There’s going to be a delay … that’s just a fact of our state’s system,” Buckley said of the crime-lab backlog. “The only remedy is more money.”
But money, wealth and influence aren’t the reason this case has been handled differently than others, he said. He insists that it was handled like any other case with similar circumstances, and he cited examples.
“It’s been written that if this was a poor white or a poor black (suspect), things would be different, and that just isn’t true,” he said. “A lot of death cases go to the grand jury and there’s no arrest until there’s an indictment.”
He referred to cases in recent years when a business owner shot an employee, when an abused wife shot her husband and when a black man ran over and killed a white man who stepped out in front of him.
“All of them were free while waiting on the grand jury,” he said. “There are a lot of examples like that. We don’t always know everything within 48 hours in a death investigation.”
One of the best recent examples of that is Justin Blakeney, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing his girlfriend’s toddler. He was arrested several weeks after the little girl’s death, when enough evidence had been collected to warrant a capital murder charge, Buckley said. (The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Blakeney must receive a new trial… see story at A1)
Burroughs wasn’t charged with murder, though. He was charged with manslaughter “in the heat of argument,” Buckley said. If found guilty, Burroughs faces a maximum of 25 years in prison, which includes a five-year enhancement for the use of a firearm in commission of the crime.
Buckley has faced some criticism and speculation about the manslaughter charge, which came five months after Sinclair was pronounced dead. He declined to discuss specifics of his presentation to the grand jury, citing the secrecy of the proceedings, by law.
“They saw everything in its entirety” over three presentations, he said. “They heard everything we heard and saw everything we saw.”
Buckley said grand jurors had four choices — murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter or “no-bill,” meaning there wasn’t enough evidence to indict. There were a total of 22 grand jurors — after one opted out because of close ties to one of the family members involved in the case — and they reportedly all agreed to indict Burroughs for manslaughter. Buckley said he thought it was the right decision.
“If the case goes to the Supreme Court, (the crime) has to fit the legal definition,” he said, “or they will reverse it.”
There were also rumblings about statements Buckley made during Burroughs’ court appearance. Some people who were in the courtroom said he sounded as if he were defending Burroughs, telling the judge that he wasn’t a flight risk or a danger to the community.
“I knew he was entitled to bail,” Buckley said, “and I knew the questions that were coming, so I just went ahead and answered them. A good trial lawyer has to be credible.”
Buckley did get Burroughs to surrender his passport, and Judge Dal Williamson set his bond at $125,000. Burroughs’ family put up 10 percent of that amount in the circuit clerk’s office a few hours later and he was released to await trial.
Sinclair was found in the driver’s seat of her Honda in the garage of Burroughs’ home. Friends and family said she was left-handed, but the fatal shot was fired into the right side of her head, behind her ear. There was no evidence of a heated argument inside the house, but it was evident she was leaving in a hurry. She was wearing only a T-shirt — the rest of her clothes were in a closet — and her cellphone was still in the house.
“She was getting out of there quickly,” Buckley said.
Buckley took full responsibility for the heavy redacting of Laurel police incident reports, in which 102 of 185 lines on eight pages were either completely or partially blacked out.
“The Leader-Call owes me a Sharpie,” Buckley joked.
But protecting the integrity of the case was a serious matter, he said.
“It should’ve said ‘investigative report,’ which is not public record,” he said. “We’re not going to release anything like that, not before grand jury … or now pending trial.”
Buckley, who lived in Windermere until recently, said he didn’t know Burroughs or his family until this case. The first he heard of it was a text from Black on the night of June 1 saying he was going to work a reported suicide. Buckley said he heard nothing else about it until the next day. He said he has never received campaign money from anyone in the Burroughs family. Buckley also said he had nothing to do with keeping Burroughs’ mugshot off the jail’s website.
There have been some tricky situations for him during the investigation, he said. That’s because Burroughs’ attorney Brad Thompson, and Sinclair’s parents’ attorney Jeannene Pacific and her son Patrick are all public defenders, and they frequently meet with the DA about cases.
“I have to have an open-door policy with them,” Buckley said, smiling, “but they’ve been up here fishing for information.”
That’s to be expected, he said.
“In a single-county district like ours, people are going to know each other and come into contact with each other,” he said.
Burroughs’ family has some close connections in local and state government.
Burroughs’ first two calls, before dialing 911, were to Laurel Municipal Judge Kyle Robertson, who is his close friend and was Sinclair’s uncle. Chancery Judge Frank McKenzie is a business partner of Burroughs’ uncle, Robert Burroughs. Their business, McBurlow Leasing, once had the title to the SUV that LPD Chief Tyrone Stewart’s son was driving at the time of the shooting. Gov. Phil Bryant was at Robert Burroughs’ beach house on exclusive Ono Island in Alabama just hours before the shooting.
Greg Burroughs reportedly failed a polygraph test and changed his story three times while being interviewed by investigators.
The attention and scrutiny of the case will likely lead to a change of venue, Buckley agreed. He admitted that the case has taken a toll on him personally, but it hasn’t deterred him from planning to seek a fourth term in 2019.
“I’m good,” he said with a smile. “Yes, I intend to run (for DA) again. I’m not through yet. We’ve handled a lot of tough cases. We’ve got 300 other cases we’re working on, too.”