Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence is incapacitated with terminal cancer, multiple sources confirmed to WSAV News 3.
The sheriff’s declining health has been no secret in official circles in Chatham County, but his incapacity raises serious legal questions as to why neither the voters of Chatham County nor the Executive Office of Gov. Nathan Deal have been notified.
The reasons why may lie in a key difference between Georgia’s laws of succession for sheriffs.
In the event of “alleged incapacity,” Georgia law (read O.C.G.A. § 15-16-26 here) stipulates the governor shall direct the state attorney general and two other sheriffs in the state to conduct a 30-day investigation.
The outcome of the investigation can lead to the suspension of the sheriff’s duties and the governor requesting the local district attorney to petition for removal from office.
If a sheriff’s office becomes vacant due to the death of a sheriff, however, the line of succession is different, according to Georgia law (read O.C.G.A. § 15-16-8 here).
Chatham County Chief Deputy Sheriff Roy J. Harris would assume the powers for a maximum of six months until a special election is held for voters to select a replacement, unless the vacancy occurs within six months of the end of the sheriff’s term.
St. Lawrence’s term ends at the end of 2016.
Most importantly, there would be no state-level investigation of the sheriff’s office under this scenario.
WSAV News 3 notified Gov. Deal’s office of our reporting, and asked Harris, Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott, Chatham County Manager Lee Smith and Chatham County Attorney R. Jonathan Hart why they have not notified the public or Deal’s office of the Sheriff’s condition.
Jen Talaber, the governor’s spokesman, confirmed to News 3 that no official notification had been made of the sheriff’s incapacity.
There are real consequences for Chatham County while there is no one executing the powers of the sheriff.
Two sources with knowledge of operations in the Chatham County Detention Center told News 3 the Corrections Bureau of the Sheriff’s Office is understaffed by several dozen sworn deputies; only the sheriff has the constitutional power to swear in deputies.
Ten inmates have died in custody at the Chatham County Detention Center in the past three calendar years.
The Medical Association of Georgia is also in the midst of its accreditation review of the facility; the director of correctional accreditation, Clyde Maxwell, told News 3 he is aware of the St. Lawrence’s incapacity. A final decision on the accreditation of the detention center has not been made.
Al St. Lawrence has been in area law enforcement since 1959. He has served as Chatham County Sheriff for 23 years. He has had a distinguished career and is one of the few Georgia Sheriffs to receive “Sheriff of the Year” from the Georgia Sheriff’s Association more than once.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the sheriff, his family and all his many friends.