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News Judge orders Sheriff’s Office to release statements in Coram case

Elizabeth Coram died of acute multi-drug toxicity in 2009. Her family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in her name.Two years after the death of a 22-year-old Highlands woman, the Macon County Sheriff’s Office has been ordered to release witness statements collected in the course of its investigation to the woman’s father.

Elizabeth Coram died at the home of an acquaintance on July 9, 2009, due to a lethal dose of prescription drugs combined with alcohol. In September 2010, Coram’s father, Jennings B. Coram of Scaly Mountain, Ga., filed a civil suit complaint of wrongful death against two witnesses in the case: Larry Murray and Adam Hicks.

The lawsuit alleges that Elizabeth’s death was the direct result of negligence on the part of Hicks and Murray who it further claims were responsible for obtaining and giving the woman a mixture of powerful prescription drugs at a time when she was already extremely intoxicated.

Last week, Superior Court Judge James U. Downs ordered the Sheriff’s Office to hand over all statements taken from three witnesses interviewed during the agency’s criminal investigation into the death. According to Mr. Coram’s attorney, Scott Neumann, Corman recently filed a lawsuit which subpoenaed records from the investigation after previous efforts to obtain the records had failed.

The court order overrode an objection and motion to quash the subpoena filed by Brian Welch, staff attorney for the Sheriff’s Office. The objection argued that there was still an open investigation ongoing in the case and that the records should not be released.

The subpoena commanded that the agency turn over all copies of tapes, CDs or other recordings of the interview taken during the investigation, as well as notes, statements from potential witnesses, and any other written documentation related to the case. In ordering the release of the witness statements, Judge Downs was only partially granting the subpoena.

Besides the witness statements of Murray and Hicks, the statements of Jared Dillion, a third potential witness in the case, will also be released.

Coram has been publicly critical of the Sheriff’s handling of his daughter’s case, and in a letter to the editor published last September in the Macon County News he wrote that the work of Holland, key staff members of the agency, and the criminal justice system had been “pathetic or worse.”

In response to questions about Coram’s complaints and his offices objections to handing over records, Sheriff Robert Holland released a statement before last week’s hearing with Downs which noted that the medical examiner in the case concluded Coram's death to be an accident caused by “acute multi-drug toxicity, including alcohol. “There is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt which specific drug, drugs or alcohol caused her death as well as who provided specific drugs and alcohol to her,” reads the statement.

Holland noted that the most recent interviews in the case were conducted by Sheriffs in November and December of 2010, and that a copy of the investigative file had been provided to the District Attorney Mike Bonfoey’s office, where it had been reviewed by the DA as well as several prosecutors.

“It’s a sad day for Macon County when a citizen who wants to find justice for his dead daughter has to fight the Macon County Sheriff first before he can even begin to fight the men who helped kill her.” — Jennings B. Coram

“I agree with the District Attorney’s conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to charge any individual at this time,” said Holland. “Since there is no statute of limitations for felonies in North Carolina it is possible that additional evidence could become available in the future that could result in a different conclusion.”

Holland added that he has no intention of hindering Mr. Coram’s civil case. “However I do intend to protect the integrity of our criminal investigation. Also, I do not have the luxury of allowing speculation to substitute for facts and evidence in this or any other case,” he said.

On Tuesday, Neumann said he expected to receive the court ordered documents soon. He noted that after two years, the Sheriff’s investigation has yielded no charges or additional information. “The civil case of wrongful death, that is the course of action which we’re left with.”

According to the complaint filed in the wrongful death lawsuit, Hicks brought Elizabeth to the home of Murray’s mother in Highlands Falls Country Club to buy drugs from Murray, “a known ‘illicit drug dealer.’” Murray provided Hicks with pills, including Tramadol and Oxycodone, a Schedule II controlled substance. Despite the fact that the young woman was so intoxicated that she could not stand, the men gave the woman the drugs and convinced her to ingest them, claims the lawsuit.

The complaint continues that Hicks then carried Coram to his car and drove her to his home, also in Highlands. According to the medical examiner, Coram died of acute multi-drug toxicity at approximately 9:30 a.m. the next morning. Hicks, who had left Coram at 7:30 a.m. to go to work, found Coram deceased when he returned home at 6 p.m.

At the time of her death, Coram was at home on break from classes at Wofford College.

After last Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Coram provided the following statement to the Macon County News: “It’s a sad day for Macon County when a citizen who wants to find justice for his dead daughter has to fight the Macon County Sheriff first before he can even begin to fight the men who helped kill her,” read the statement. “Robbie Holland was a good man when he was first elected nine years ago, but he has changed.”

“We continually have had to conduct our own investigation to proceed forward with this wrongful death lawsuit,” said Coram on Wednesday. According to Coram it became necessary to sue for the Sheriff’s records after he learned the identity of a witness that the agency had not previously revealed. “We needed access to their information to know what else was critical to our case that they might have in their files but wouldn’t tell us,” Coram explained.

Coram clarified that his frustration was with the Sheriff and not deputies of the department. “I think the deputies of Macon County do an outstanding job,” he said. “They have been professional, knowledgeable and very sensitive towards our feelings.”

Coram said he is grateful for the support his family has received from parents around the country who have lost children under similar circumstances. He stated that if they are successful in their wrongful death lawsuit, any restitution beyond the cost of prosecuting the case will go back to drug education and prevention programs in Macon County.


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