Sheriff on trial for 'contract hit' on his successor

Corruption is not unusual in the sheriff's department in DeKalb County, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Four of the past five sheriffs have been investigated, indicted or convicted of misusing their office for financial gain.

But the trial of Sidney Dorsey, sheriff from 1996 to 2000, is something else. He is accused of ordering the murder of his successor, a man who successfully challenged his bid for re-election by vowing to clean up the department once and for all.

Derwin Brown was shot dead outside his home three days before he was due to be sworn in as the new sheriff in December 2000.

Even before he had taken office, he had painted a picture of Mr Dorsey as a corrupt small-town potentate – using sheriff's deputies for a private security business he ran on the side, demanding money and sexual favours from a would-be bail bondswoman looking to him for a licence, using county funds and legal resources to get his son out of jail and overseeing divorce and bankruptcy proceedings on behalf of his family.

Prosecutors looking into Brown's murder concluded it was a professional hit and uncovered evidence that other county officials – including the chief prosecutor – were next in the firing line.

No wonder Mr Dorsey's trial, which began on Monday in a rural county 150 miles south of Atlanta, has been the talk of Georgia for months. Every stage in the case has been soaked through with the sleaze and sweat the movies have taught us to associate with southern lawmen. One sheriff's deputy – now the prosecution's star witness – was involved in a shoot-out at his home three months after the Brown murder, and a body and a bullet-riddled car were subsequently found near by.

That deputy, Patrick Cuffy, was controversially offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Soon, he and another witness were singing – about how they and a group of other men, under Mr Dorsey's direction, had tracked Brown for months, waiting for the right moment to attack.

The defence has maintained from the start that Mr Cuffy is an unreliable witness and might even be the culprit himself. At an earlier trial that ended in March, two members of the alleged hit squad were acquitted of Brown's murder – largely because the jury found Mr Cuffy and his fellow witness, Paul Skyers, to be sleazy and untrustworthy.

The DeKalb County district attorney, Tom Morgan, recognises the chances of convicting Mr Dorsey of murder on the same evidence are slim. Prosecutors are hoping they can at least make some of the subsidiary charges of corruption stick.

And corruption is very much the flavour of the case. The trial has been moved out of DeKalb County, because of suspicions about the relationship between the sheriff's department and the local judges as well as the difficulty of finding an impartial jury for the high-profile trial.

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