JACKSON – U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blames the Mississippi Supreme Court for the state’s poor record of trials delays, which keep accused persons in jail longer than necessary.
“The court lacks the will to hold prosecutors and trial judges accountable for egregious delays in criminal cases,” Reeves wrote in an opinion filed Friday. “The result is that accused persons wait longer and longer to go to trial.”
“Given the frequency of speedy trial issues it faces, it is astonishing that the Mississippi Supreme Court has not reversed a criminal conviction for a speedy trial violation since 1992,” Reeves wrote.
State court procedures posted on the Mississippi Supreme Court website call for a criminal trial date to be set within 60 days of indictment and a trial to be held within 270 days of an indictment unless good cause is given for a continuance.
Mississippi State Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller Jr. declined to comment.
In his opinion, Reeves asked: “Why is Mississippi’s criminal justice system unable to bring accused persons to trial in a reasonable amount of time? To avoid punishing the innocent … accused persons must have a right to a speedy trial.”
Reeves’ remarks came in a 12-page filing to close out a lawsuit by Rodrick Patterson of Jackson against Hinds County and Judge Winston Kidd, who presided over Patterson’s case. Patterson held Kidd responsible for being jailed 23 months before his case was dismissed and he was released.
Reeves ruled against Patterson, noting that Kidd could not be sued because he is a judge and Hinds County could not be sued because it is not responsible for bringing criminal defendants to trial. Reeves said the blame lies with the Hinds County District Attorney’s office, but noted they also are immune from lawsuits in federal court.
The district attorney’s office did not to respond to requests for a reaction.
Jackson attorney Roy Campbell III, president of the Mississippi Bar, reacted to Reeves’ opinion, saying “Whether one is a criminal defendant anxious for a trial and exoneration or a victim pressing for a trial and conviction, justice delayed is often justice denied. The causes are many and varied, but if shining a brighter light on the problem helps to identify solutions, we all benefit.” (Campbell is the father of Mississippi Today reporter Larrison Campbell.)
Jackson defense attorney Cynthia Stewart agrees with Reeves’ assessment.
“Unfortunately, this sort of situation is not at all unusual,” she said. “Defendants lose faith in the justice system, and between high bonds, poor investigations and a system that typically operates the most slowly in cases lacking proof, their lawyers experience increasing frustration.”
Tucker Carrington, executive director for the George Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi, said about Reeves’ opinion, “What’s astonishing about his opinion is not simply the statistics he cites about our state prison system, but the unwillingness of courts that have been confronted with precisely the same facts to speak honestly about them.”
Reeves noted that Hinds County won the Patterson lawsuit, “but justice has lost.” He said county taxpayers paid about $31,500 to detain Patterson those 23 months.
Oxford defense attorney Christi R. McCoy says she’s experienced the trial delay problem.
“When a person is arraigned, a trial date should be set right that moment – just as in federal court,” McCoy said. “You indict someone, you better be prepared to bring them to trial” as court procedures require.
She put the blame on local district attorneys, who control the court docket.
“I have seen it over and over. They pick and choose what cases appear at the top of the docket,” McCoy said. “If the speedy trial rule were enforced, it also would cut down on a lot of worthless indictments. I see far too many of those in state court. Federal court is not immune, but it is rampant in state court.”
Mississippi Today reached out for comment to several district attorneys’ offices. District 3’s District Attorney Ben Creekmore says it takes “diligence” to keep cases moving toward trial.
“The (Patterson) case at issue here involves a defendant that was in jail while awaiting trial. In our district, this type of situation is one of our most urgent concerns,” said Creekmore of New Albany. “Our courts are making every effort to identify defendants who are being held without bond or who cannot post a bond. These cases are supposed to be priority cases over any other case on the docket because these defendants are being held without a finding of guilt.
“This requires diligence among everyone involved: the prosecutors, defense lawyers, the bench, and the chief deputies, investigators, and jail administrators.”
In the end, Reeves writes, “until state and trial appellate courts safeguard the presumption of innocence by ensuring that accused persons do not languish in jail year after year without trial, justice in Mississippi will continue to be the loser.”