Following two hours of testimony: Jury votes not to indict Abernathy

By BENNIE IVORY
The Sentinel-Record 6-17-1979

MALVERN– The Hot Spring County Grand Jury voted unanimously Friday not to return a first-degree murder indictment against Hot Springs Police Lt. Thurman Abernathy for the 1976 death of Garland County Deputy Sheriff Linda Edwards.

The Grand Jury reached the decision after listening to just over two hours of testimony by Sgt. Mike Fletcher, a criminal investigator with the  Arkansas State Police and  Mrs. Sara  Edwards of Hot Springs, a key prosecution witness who is not related to the dead woman.

Fletcher was one of the chief investigators in the case and Sara Edwards was the last person to see Linda Edwards alive.

Abernathy, 39, was charged with first-degree murder in June, 1977, in connection with the case but that charge was dropped earlier this week so the matter could be submitted to the Grand Jury for consideration.

Prosecutor Dan Harmon announced in March that he would not prosecute Abernathy without the backing of a Grand Jury indictment. He said he based the decision on a State Supreme Court ruling that limited testimony crucial to the prosecution’s case.

Abernathy has been on indefinite suspension from the police department without pay since his arrest. He has been free on $50,000 bond.

The failure of the Grand Jury to return an indictment ended an ongoing investigation that began when the Edwards woman disappeared on Aug. 22, 1976.  Parts of her skeletal remains were found in February 1977, by hunters in a forest in western Hot Spring County.

Authorities said the woman died of a severe skull fracture.

The Garland County Grand Jury investigated the case in 1976 before the woman’s body was found but took no action.

Mrs. Irene Browning of Hot Springs, the victim’s mother, requested permission to appear before the Grand jury Friday but was not allowed to.

When a reporter asked her to comment on the Grand Jury’s decision as she was getting in her car, the woman burst into tears and drove away.

The official reading of the Grand Jury’s report was delayed for almost two hours when Harmon inadvertently dismissed the jurors after they had taken their vote.

State law requires that the report be read in open court in the presence of the presiding judge.

The jurors had to be relocated and summoned back to the courtroom but only 14 of the 16 jurors returned.

Harmon said the failure of the  Grand Jury to return an indictment does not mean the investigation would have to cease.

“We submitted everything the investigation covered – statements, interviews    and   the   inadmissible testimony,” he said. “The Investigation does not have to stop because a no-true bill was returned.”

However, Harmon said the decision to continue the investigation would have to be made by the state police.

The prosecution was dealt a damaging blow earlier this year when the state Supreme Court issued a ruling that limited the testimony of Sara Edwards.

Sara Edwards had testified in a preliminary hearing last year that Linda Edwards told her she was going to meet Abernathy on the night she disappeared.

The Supreme Court said that testimony was admissible in court.

However, the higher court ruled, that other key testimony by the woman was not admissible because it was hearsay.

That testimony included statements by Sara Edwards that Linda Edwards had told her she was sexually involved with Abernathy, who is married; that she was pregnant by him and that he wanted her to have an abortion against her wishes.

Abernathy’s attorney, Jack Holt, Jr., of Little Rock, said in a telephone Interview that he feels the Grand Jury’s findings put the case to rest.

“Immediately upon hearing that the grand jury returned a no-true bill,” he said, “I can say that Mr. Abernathy has been exonerated and cleared by the investigations of both the Garland County and Hot Spring County Grand Juries. And   that matter is now set to rest.

“I think something worthy of note since Mr. Abernathy was an initial suspect, is the fact that the state police, the FBI and local police authorities have investigated this matter for over a two- year period.

“And it is obvious from the facts that neither grand jury returned an indictment and that the evidence of the investigation would not even support submitting it to a petit jury for determination of innocence or guilt.”

Holt said Abernathy would seek reinstatement to the police department as soon as possible.

“I envision that application for reinstatement will be made probably next week,” he said.
The Hot Springs Civil Service Commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting is set for Tuesday.

Police Chief Grover Douglas said he would prefer not to express his personal feelings about Abernathy, a 12-year veteran, returning to the police department but would accept the decision of the civil service commission.

“I would rather not express my opinion on it,” he said. “If he was exonerated, all charges were dropped. The man is entitled to everything he has coming to him.”

The Sentinel-Record unsuccessfully attempted to contact commission chairman Joe Poe for comment.

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