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Deputy's hearing ends without a ruling on his job

April 12, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Berkeley County Deputy Sheriff's Civil Service Commission adjourned late Monday afternoon without ruling whether a fired Berkeley County sheriff's deputy should get his job back.

More people turned out for Richard L. Burrell's hearing than could fit in the small hearing room at the Berkeley County Courthouse. Several spectators had to stand in the hallway.

Burrell is protesting his March 29 firing by Sheriff Ronald Jones.

Jones said he fired Burrell because a 180-day family violence final protective order against Burrell prevented him from carrying a firearm and therefore doing his job.

Appealing to the three-member commission to reinstate Burrell, David Joel, Burrell's attorney, said the order was withdrawn the day of the firing, revoking any prohibition on using or possessing a firearm.

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Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely, representing Jones, said the order was still in effect when Jones was fired.

Commission President Christopher Breeze said a decision will be issued within a few days. Either party can appeal the decision to Circuit Court.

Breeze said in an interview afterward that a lot of pressure is attached to the case. While the commission has held disciplinary hearings before, "This is a man's career," Breeze said.

Many of the approximately three dozen people squeezed into the hearing room or standing outside it supported Burrell, who was with the Sheriff's Department for almost five years.

In the hallway after the hearing, Burrell - who smiled and shook hands with several supporters - said they were a mix of friends, relatives and members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Asked if he would return to the sheriff's department should he win his case, Burrell said he would. He declined to comment further.

Burrell is one of two plaintiffs suing Jones in a federal civil rights case. The suit alleges Jones allowed various types of harassment and discrimination to go on in the department.

In the suit, Burrell, who is black, alleges that Jones, who is white, and other members of the Sheriff's Department discriminated against him because of his race.

During Tuesday's Civil Service hearing, Joel suggested that retaliation was a factor in Burrell's firing, but Games-Neely objected and said it was not part of Burrell's complaint to the commission. "This is not the entire world against Deputy Burrell," she said.

Jones and Berkeley County Magistrate Ruth Donaldson, who issued final orders on March 7 to both Burrell and his girlfriend, Jeanette Renee Holben, testified during the Civil Service hearing.

Donaldson said that Holben came to her "before lunch" on March 29 to ask that the order against Burrell be withdrawn.

About 30 minutes later, Burrell came to the office, asking Donaldson to withdraw the order against Holben, the magistrate said. Donaldson said Burrell told her he had just been fired by Jones.

She granted both requests.

Games-Neely told the Civil Service commission that the implication is that Burrell coerced Holben into withdrawing her complaint.

Holben did not return a message left at her home Tuesday evening.

Games-Neely said that the orders themselves actually remain in effect. It is only the complaints that led to the orders that were withdrawn, she argued.

Burrell and Holben filed complaints against each other after a Feb. 27 fight at the house they were sharing.

They are each facing one count of domestic battery and are each free on $587 bond.

Jones said that when he learned of a temporary order against Burrell on March 2, he put Burrell on administrative leave with pay. Burrell turned in his service weapon.

Donaldson issued Burrell and Holben final protective orders on March 7 but didn't initial a line on each that prohibits the person from "using or possessing a firearm or other weapon while this protective order is in effect."

"The only reason we usually check that is if the petitioner requested it," Donaldson testified.

Donaldson noted, however, that she did initial the provision that said "possessing any firearms or ammunition while a protective order is in effect may be a federal offense for which a person who is convicted may be imprisoned for up to 10 years."

Jones testified that Burrell was fired not only because he would have been unable to carry a gun, but also because his arrest and protective order violated departmental codes of conduct.

Games-Neely cited a court decision that said a deputy may be fired, even without breaking a law, if it is in the public interest.

Joel said that didn't apply in this case. "This is a private argument between two people at their home," he said.

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