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The inability to locate a key witness led to a drastic move in the Ralph O’Neal murder case on Monday.
“We would ask that you allow us to enter a dismissal,” Assistant District Attorney General Alyson Kennedy told Criminal Court Judge E. Eugene Eblen.
Eblen, who appeared surprised, granted the request.
“We have no objection,” O’Neal attorney Bob Vogel said.
And with that, the case was over.
O’Neal was charged in Roane County Criminal Court with first-degree murder in the death of Ronnie Dean “Boone” Cofer.
Cofer’s body was found in a ditch on Clax Gap Road on Aug. 6, 2007.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Vogel said after the hearing. “I applaud the state for their decision.”
O’Neal will not be a free man, however.
In 2011 he was sentenced to life in federal prison for his conviction on drug charges. He’ll be heading back to federal prison now that the state case is over.
“The comfort is, with him having life, we know that by virtue of dismissing this he’s not going to hit the street,” Deputy District Attorney General Frank Harvey said.
O’Neal was indicted in the case on June 8, 2009. He was scheduled to stand trial this past April, but the trial was postponed because Pamela Smith, the key witness, couldn’t be found. Authorities have continued to search for her with no success.
“Numerous law enforcement agencies have scoured the earth essentially looking for Ms. Smith,” Kennedy said. “We’ve had local law enforcement, out-of-county law enforcement, TBI and the U.S. Marshals. As of this morning, no one has found her.”
The hearing was a lot easier than O’Neal’s lawyer had anticipated.
Vogel said he was surprised the state didn’t argue against his motion to dismiss.
“I had come here expecting we would argue the motions,” he said. “It was a welcome surprise.”
Vogel disputed the notion that O’Neal got off on a technicality.
“You know better than to ask me that question,” he said. “I do believe he’s innocent of this charge, and that’s why I applaud the state because I think justice was done today.”
In court documents, the state alleged O’Neal killed Cofer “for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution of” himself or another.
Kennedy said Smith was an essential witness in the case because of court rules on corroboration.
Harvey said the dismissal doesn’t mean the state can’t refile the murder charge against O’Neal.
“There’s no statute of limitations on first-degree murder,” he said. “Should the situation on the ground change in terms of the proof we have available, the charge could be brought again, but this current indictment is gone.”
Vogel said the state needs to stop focusing on O’Neal.
“I do hope that they find the killer of Boone Cofer, because it’s not right for the family that they have this open,” he said.
The hearing was held in Morgan County because that’s where Eblen was holding court on Monday.