By LARRY AULT
MARCH 24, 1979
MALVERN – A first-degree murder charge against Hot Springs Police Lt. Thurman Abernathy, charged with the death of Linda Edwards, a Garland County sheriff’s deputy who disappeared in August 1976, will be ‘dropped “in a week or so,” according to Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon of the Seventh Judicial District.
In a press conference at the Hot Spring County Courthouse here Friday, Harmon said careful examination of the evidence prompted him to plan on submitting the case to a grand jury here and let it decide whether charges should be filed.
Edwards disappeared on the night of Aug. 22, 1976.
Abernathy was arrested in July 1977 after parts of the woman’s skeletal remains were found by hunters in western Hot Spring County.
The officer has been free on a $50,000 bond and has been on indefinite suspension from the Hot Springs Police Department without pay since his arrest.
If no indictment is returned by the grand jury, Harmon said he would not pursue the case without additional evidence. Harmon said a recent state Supreme Court ruling that held certain evidence in the case inadmissible because it was hearsay was the major reason for his decision.
Harmon said he now has less evidence than at the time the murder charge against Abernathy was filed by Prosecuting Attorney John Cole of Sheridan, who is now circuit judge in the district. Harmon inherited the case from Cole.
Cole will disqualify himself as trial judge and a special judge will be named to preside over the trial if a Hot Spring County grand jury indicts Abernathy, Harmon said.
The prosecutor said a grand jury at Malvern must be empaneled before the case progresses any further. He added he expects to present the case to the grand jury within 30 to 60 days.
Harmon said his decision to nol pros (or drop) l first-degree murder charges against Abernathy and present the case to a grand jury was his own, although he consulted Cole and Mike Fletcher, a state police criminal investigator.
Law enforcement authorities have done “a fine job of investigating the case,” Harmon said, adding that he believes police have uncovered all available evidence. Harmon said more than 100 persons were interviewed as part of the investigation. The prosecutor briefly discussed a state Supreme Court opinion issued March 5 on an appeal of a decision by former Hot Spring County Circuit Judge Henry B. Means, who ruled that all of the testimony of’ Sara Edwards, a close friend of Linda Edwards, was not admissible because it was hearsay. Cole had appealed the ruling when he was prosecutor’ and the court held some of the testimony of Sara Edwards was admissible.
The prosecution is basing much of its case on statements Linda Edwards made to other persons, including Sara Edwards, prior to her death.
The testimony of Sara Edwards indicated Linda Edwards planned to see Thurman Abernathy on the night before her death. Ruled inadmissible was testimony that Linda Edwards said she had a sexual relationship with Abernathy and was pregnant at the time she died. Harmon said Linda Edwards had discussed with Sara Edwards her plans for the night she disappeared and that courts have held testimony regarding what a deceased planned to do prior to their death was admissible.
The prosecutor also said the investigative file in the Edwards case contained reports from Linda Edwards’ physician, presumably regarding her pregnancy. However, Harmon refused to discuss the testimony in the Abernathy case any further Friday.
Harmon would not reveal the name of Linda Edwards’ doctor or say if the evidence would substantiate she was pregnant at the time of her death.
Harmon said he plans to wait until after the grand jury has considered the evidence to take any additional steps.
“I did not file these charges,” he said. “It was not my decision to file these charges. ”
Harmon said because of the lack of evidence he felt he had “an obligation” to submit the case to a grand jury. He said there may be “a close decision” on whether or not there is enough evidence to prosecute the case.
Harmon admitted under questioning he is “insecure” about the Abernathy case and wants the backing of the grand jury indictment prior to prosecuting the charge.
“That is correct, or I would not be submitting it to a grand jury,” he said.
Harmon said he plans to formally drop the charges against Abernathy “within the next week.” The prosecutor said when the charges are dropped, Abernathy will be released from any police hold and because no charges are pending he will not be required to post bond.
The prosecutor said he felt a grand jury can “fairly” consider the matter knowing that Abernathy was previously charged with first-degree murder.
At this time a 1979 grand jury has not been empaneled in Hot Spring County, but Harmon said he expects one will be shortly. Harmon said he has not personally advised Abernathy of his decision to drop the charge, but said he had notified Abernathy’s attorney.
Harmon would not say if this development would free Abernathy to return to his job at the Hot Springs Police Department.
“Perhaps this is an unusual maneuver but this has been an unusual case,” he said.
Edwards was killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument.