The State Law Enforcement Division has fired a senior Lowcountry agent after accusing her of doctoring paperwork from a child death investigation and inserting an alleged confession from a suspect in the case.
SLED officials have declined to answer questions about the firing of agent Michele China, but they noted in documents submitted to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy that she was terminated for misconduct involving dishonesty.
China has denied any wrongdoing and is appealing her firing to the state employee grievance committee, her attorney, Kevin Kearse of Moncks Corner, said.
SLED's move, however, has prompted area prosecutors to begin reviewing cases in which China was involved to check for potential issues. She has been involved in a number of area cases during her 12 years with SLED.
The Post and Courier has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to SLED for documents related to China's firing. SLED spokesman Thom Berry said this week that the requested information is not yet available.
But SLED, like all state police agencies, is required to notify the Criminal Justice Academy when an agent or officer leaves his or her job. They must note the circumstances behind that departure and detail any allegations of misconduct.
The paperwork SLED submitted in November for China noted that she was suspended from duty Oct. 28 due to an internal probe into allegations that she had mishandled a 2004 child death investigation. The papers don't say where that death occurred, but 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said it was in his jurisdiction in Hampton County.
Internal investigators looking into the allegations questioned China as to whether she had altered any original records from the case before she handed the file over to them. She denied having done so, according to the SLED paperwork.
Investigators later determined that a memo from a January 2005 interview with a suspect in the case had been altered in September of last year to include a confession, the paperwork stated.
When confronted with a forensic computer exam that confirmed the original memo had been doctored, China admitted to making the change and lying to investigators about her actions, the SLED paperwork stated.
Details about the case in question remained unclear Thursday. Stone said he was hesitant to discuss the case in detail before determining where SLED is in its ongoing probe of the matter.
He did say, however, that no one was convicted as a result of China's investigation. Prosecutors dismissed the case before trial due to concerns about some of the evidence that China had gathered that could not be verified, Stone said. His office notified SLED of those concerns, he said.
Stone added that his office is reviewing all cases in which China played a role to make sure everything was done by the book.
China's attorney said in a written statement that his client is a dedicated, hard-working and committed agent who "enjoyed a lengthy, decorated law enforcement career." She denies all of the allegations leveled against her, Kearse said, but they don't want to taint the pending appeal of her termination by discussing particulars of the case.
"We are confident that a fair and an unbiased review of this matter will provide Agent China with the proper redress and exoneration that she justly deserves," Kearse said in the statement.
China, a Ladson resident, worked for Sumter police for six years before joining SLED in 2002, state records show. Academy records show no other blemishes on her work record.
The area cases China has worked on include several involving misconduct by public employees. Among other things, she had a hand in a 2007 probe that led to the arrest of two Berkeley County workers accused of paving private roads on county time, and she worked on a 2012 case that resulted in a state probation agent being charged with soliciting a bribe from an offender in Moncks Corner.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who represents Charleston and Berkeley counties, recently notified Public Defender Ashley Pennington of China's termination after learning of the firing. She also asked her prosecutors to review their cases and notify the appropriate defense attorneys if they come across any cases in which China was a witness.
Pennington said he hasn't heard of any problematic cases so far.
Wilson said she has no way of knowing through her case-tracking system how many cases China was involved in locally.
"China's specific role in each individual case will determine whether or not the prosecution is affected," Wilson said. "There are many times officers are witnesses in cases but their credibility is not a real issue because the events or evidence is easily verified or corroborated by other evidence and testimony. Sometimes, however, when an officer is the sole witness to evidence that is contested and there is no other corroboration, a situation like this can have devastating effects on the prosecution."
Still, Wilson said she doesn't expect many cases to be affected by China's firing since SLED is not involved in a great number of investigations locally that lead to arrest. China also had no role in the agency's crime lab, which does forensic testing for local cases, she said.
Dave Munday contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.