GREENSBORO — A Greensboro man who walked away from his 1989 drug trial must be retried because officials destroyed the transcript before he was sentenced after reappearing last year, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
In March 1989, John Earl Sturdivant, now 72, was being tried on charges of trafficking cocaine and conspiracy to traffic cocaine. At the time, police described him as “a major local drug dealer.”
Sturdivant disappeared after the first day of the trial. A jury convicted him despite his absence.
A judge delayed sentencing until Sturdivant could be found. That didn’t happen until last year, when Sturdivant turned himself in to police.
Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer sentenced him to 35 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. During the sentencing, Sturdivant apologized to Cromer for both his crimes and for running, court records show.
“I know it was wrong ... and now, looking back, I should have stayed and just took what — what was coming,” he said.
Sturdivant’s previous convictions included felony second-degree kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon, breaking and entering and misdemeanor second-degree kidnapping.
He appealed the drug charges conviction, which would have him spending the rest of his life in prison, because there was no verbatim transcript of the trial he missed.
In an opinion published Tuesday, N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Phil Berger Jr. wrote that between 2000 and 2002, all records, files and the court reporter notes from the case were destroyed under a request by the Guilford County clerk of courts. Berger noted that portions of the case were preserved on microfilm.
The state argued to the appeals court that Sturdivant forfeited his rights to a transcript when he fled.
“We would agree with the state but for the fact the transcript and other pertinent records appear to have been destroyed pursuant to requests from the Guilford County Clerk of Superior Court,” Berger said. “While the Administrative Office of the Courts had a protocol in place for destruction of criminal case files, Defendant’s file should not have been included because his case had not been resolved fully.”
Appellate Judges Valerie Zachary and Toby Hampson agreed with Berger’s ruling.
Guilford County Chief Assistant District Attorney Steve Cole said he adopted the case from former prosecutor Gary Goodman. He said he wasn’t surprised, because of the length of time that had passed, to learn that the trial record had been destroyed.
Cole said Wednesday morning that he had not heard about the opinion and plans to review it.
Cole said Goodman had provided him “every stitch” of notes and documents he had from the trial for the sentencing.
Portions of Cole’s summary of the case to Cromer were included in Berger’s order.
Cole told Cromer during the sentencing that in the late ’80s, Greensboro police Officer R.F. Reese met undercover with Sturdivant and another man to buy a half-kilogram — about a pound — of cocaine for $17,000.
Cole said Wednesday that once the undercover officers confirmed the drugs existed, an officer walked to a pay phone to request backup.
When police arrested the men, they confiscated $125,000 worth of cocaine, two vehicles and $26,000 in cash.
Berger wrote that losing the transcript would not have been enough to order a new trial. Sturdivant’s attorney tried to learn more about the trial from the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and courtroom clerk who served on the case in 1989.
The judge and defense attorney had no notes about the trial, leaving the appellate court to rely on Goodman’s notes. And that wasn’t enough, Berger wrote.
“The state stipulates that the trial transcript cannot be recreated and concedes that the ‘record is insufficient to address’ issues on appeal,” Berger wrote. “Therefore, we vacate and remand for a new trial.”