Opinion: Wilkey case catastrophic failure, prosecutorial miscalculation or somewhere in between?

Staff Photo By Matt Hamilton / Attorney Ben McGowan shakes the hand of his client, Daniel Wilkey, after charges were dismissed against the latter at the Hamilton County Courts Building on Friday, May 12, 2023.

If former Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Wilkey did anything wrong criminally to account for a 44-count indictment filed against him in 2019, the fact that all charges in the indictment were dismissed against him in Criminal Court Friday stand as a catastrophic failure.

If the charges never should have been filed, as his attorney said, the case might be chalked up to a serious prosecutorial miscalculation.

The truth is likely somewhere in between, the full story of which may never be known.

What is known is that Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman said that "justice demands this case be dismissed," after prosecutor Kevin Allen said he saw "no avenues of prosecution." And why was that? Allen pointed to "missing files" in the case, which he had requested from former District Attorney Neal Pinkston and which Pinkston said he would supply.

The resolution of the case set off outrage from individuals allegedly wronged by Wilkey, satisfaction from Sheriff Austin Garrett and unexplained charges of political motivation by Pinkston.

To us, it is Pinkston, who filed an affidavit in response to Allen's motion for dismissal, who comes off looking ineffectual.

The former district attorney general told this newspaper in a phone interview Friday that the file should have been in his office when the Nashville prosecutor requested it. But Pinkston said he does not remember receiving the request before he left office. Then the file could not be found after he left, though he said he hadn't taken it. He also said he later sent Allen a spreadsheet of Wilkey's violations and claimed plenty of video evidence was still available to take the case to trial. In his affidavit, he said he decided to request a pro-tem prosecutor because his incoming successor, Coty Wamp, suggested she would dismiss the case upon entering office.

However, Wamp told this page Monday she and Pinkston's executive assistant district attorney, Cameron Williams, determined that she would not handle the case and several others "out of fairness" because she had been an attorney in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. Because it was agreed a pro-tem would handle the case, she said she had never known what all the counts (especially reckless driving charges) against Wilkey were, had never known what kind of file (digital, physical or otherwise — "no one had let me know") had been kept on the case, and had never met Allen.

To her predecessor's charge that she would dismiss the case once she got in office, the district attorney said she had talked about the case "quite a bit" while campaigning for the DA seat (she soundly defeated Pinkston, denying him a second term) and agreed she would have dismissed some of the charges. In particular, she said, was Wilkey's charge of rape for legally "pulling drugs out of a suspect's butt crack."

Former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond told Local 3 News last week an internal investigation of the incident involving the retrieval of drugs from the suspect's body cavity showed the deputy had gone by the book.

Yet, Wamp wasn't saying Wilkey wasn't without flaws. In a 2022 radio interview, the then-candidate said "the sheriff found out about policy violations and terminated Daniel Wilkey from the Sheriff's Office, so I'm not aware of any point in time where the sheriff has condoned some of Daniel Wilkey's behavior. ... I'm not condoning his behavior. He violated Sheriff's Office policy in multiple ways, and he was terminated because of that. But has he been treated fairly by the district attorney's office? No."

She also questioned why, if the charges were so egregious in a 44-count indictment, Pinkston in the subsequent two and a half years never took the case to trial.

"I don't know why he still tries to pick a fight with me," she said of Pinkston. "I feel sorry for the guy."

Wilkey is not out of the woods yet because he still faces charges of civil rights violations in several federal lawsuits from some of the same incidents in which the charges were dismissed Friday.

Although 17 of the counts against him were for reckless driving, two of the more egregious involved the body cavity search and one in which a woman stopped for a traffic violation — and a subsequent finding of drug paraphernalia — wound up having an alleged forced baptism in exchange for a citation instead of potential jail time. In his dismissal motion, Allen said the baptism was a poor decision but that violations of freedom of religion were not a prosecutorial crime. In the other drug find, he said "most custodial arrests that police make require some sort of lawful assault or battery on the arrestee."

In our estimation, Wilkey clearly needed more training or was not cut out to be a law enforcement officer at all. We're glad he's no longer with the department. As to his charges, while some might have been dismissed in the long run, he's fortunate someone apparently took their eye off the ball.