Hoping to head off controversy, Macon City Councilman Virgil Watkins called a special meeting of the city Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.
It didn’t work. After an hour of discussion, proponents of a new monument to public safety officers killed on duty and those who object to its placement near the Bibb County Courthouse still disagreed.
Watkins said he wanted to see if that discussion or any minor changes might satisfy both sides before construction, and possible legal opposition, got too far along.
The Macon-Bibb Law Enforcement Foundation wants to create a new “Public Safety Park” on the Mulberry Street median in front of the Fickling Building. It would include three freestanding panels of black granite bearing the names of all 27 Macon police, Bibb County sheriff’s deputies and Macon-Bibb County firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
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A resolution allowing the monument, sponsored by Councilmen Ed DeFore and Rick Hutto, moved without opposition through committee and on to unanimous council approval July 19.
But Aug. 2, criminal defense attorney Franklin Hogue objected to that site. It could influence jurors in trials involving law enforcement officers, he said, such as his current defense of Thomas Porter, now accused of killing Bibb County sheriff’s deputy Joseph Whitehead.
Councilman Mike Cranford agreed, and has submitted a resolution asking the city to rescind its approval of the monument. That is likely headed for the council Public Properties Committee next week.
Cranford said he has no objection to the monument per se; there are already similar markers elsewhere in town. His concern is the same as Hogue’s.
“I am a criminal defense lawyer. I am very proud to be a criminal defense lawyer. That’s how I make my living,” Cranford said.
Cranford said he became alarmed after hearing the statement that 90 to 100 jurors a day might pass by the monument, coming from parking spaces or going to lunch. Fearing “constant litigation,” he recommends that it be moved, he said.
“Coleman Hill would be a good location for this thing,” Cranford said.
Hogue, at Tuesday’s meeting, said he has tremendous respect for police and firefighters, but has seen a murder conviction reversed by a seemingly minor influence on jurors.
That can be hugely expensive for prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, he said.
Several council members were skeptical of assertions that the monument could unduly influence jurors. Councilman Charles Jones noted that not only have council, the mayor and city departments all approved the project, but digging for construction already has started -- making it rather late for any objections.
Concrete work should be done by the middle of next week, said Warren Selby, chairman of the law enforcement foundation.
The program is already set for a dedication ceremony at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 12, he said.
Selby said the design has been the same from the beginning: four-foot-tall black granite panels, with inch-high lettering. It would be unreadable from more than about 10 feet away, and it’s unlikely jurors merely passing by would wander out of the Mulberry Street crosswalk and into the park itself, he said.
The new park’s $70,000 cost is paid entirely by private donations, not city funds, Selby said.
Since no compromise emerged, construction will continue, while Cranford’s resolution to rescind city approval makes its way through the Public Properties Committee.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.