Court’s not in session: A judge campaigns while his cases backlog

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Judge Jeff Weill

More than three years have passed since officers arrested 22-year-old Andre Kennedy in connection with the kidnapping and robbery of an Eastover doctor which left one suspect dead.

After several delays, Kennedy’s trial was set to begin Tuesday, Nov. 13. Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Weill, who is campaigning in a runoff for a seat on the Mississippi Court of Appeals, abruptly continued the case, notifying counsel of the cancellation Nov. 12.

Kennedy, a former guard at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, is accused of kidnapping a doctor from his Eastover home, forcing the man to drive him and another suspect to an ATM to withdraw money. The doctor turned a gun on his attackers and shot and killed suspect Edwin Robinson, according to media reports. Kennedy’s trial has been rescheduled for Dec. 10.

Weill has sparsely conducted trials and hearings during this election season. During the Nov. 6 election, he received 42,643 votes to candidate David McCarty’s 73,898 and Byron Carter’s 33,821 votes. Since no candidate received over 50 percent of the vote, Weill will face McCarty in a Nov. 27 runoff.

Meanwhile, Kennedy has been in jail more than 1,270 days, unable to make bond.

“There are folks sitting in Raymond waiting three years, in some cases five years for a trial and then just to have nearly half a dozen trial weeks in the last couple months canceled is just ludicrous,” said Kennedy’s public defender, Chris Routh.

Routh, who has a contentious history with Weill, filed an official objection to the continuance Tuesday. He said neither the defense or prosecution wanted to delay the case and Weill gave no reason for the continuance.

In 2016, Weill found Routh in contempt of court and briefly jailed him following a courtroom spat. Politics runs deep in the Hinds County Courthouse: Routh has campaigned for McCarty, Weill’s opponent in the appeal’s court race.

The need to balance hearing cases while campaigning for office is a reality of the judicial system in Mississippi, where judges are elected as opposed to appointed.

Continuing a case is always at a judge’s discretion, said Darlene Ballard, director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance.

“They (judges) are still responsible for maintaining their docket and hearing cases during the election cycle, which kind of puts them at a disadvantage, I suppose, if you have an opponent that maybe is a solo practitioner that can set their own hours — they can maybe campaign during the day,” Ballard said.

Ballard said a judge would have to take personal leave, similar to taking a vacation, to be absent from the courtroom to campaign. But, she added, it would be a judge’s responsibility to plan ahead and avoid scheduling cases during that time.

“I wouldn’t think a case set for some time would be continued just for that purpose (campaigning),” Ballard said.

In fact, it is unusual for a judge to continue a case on his or her own without an articulated reason, said Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith. Usually, either the defense or prosecution requests a case be continued when either party is unprepared to start trial.

“The concern is that when this judge postpones a matter, sua sponte, then both parties are deprived of their rights and or relief sought,” Smith said in a written statement. “My office has been deprived of our basic fundamental rights as litigants on a continuous basis in this courtroom and often times without notice.”

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith

Smith said the prosecution paid for a witness to fly from out-of-town to testify and one took time off of work for the trial. Beyond inconvenience, Smith said this is “a significant loss to our budget when this occurs.”

Smith and Weill also have a tumultuous relationship: the judge attempted to bar Smith from participating in cases on his docket in 2016.

By Thursday, Weill had not filed an order continuing Kennedy’s case, as is customary, but did file an order granting the new trial date of Dec. 10.

Weill did not return calls to Mississippi Today and his court administrator would not answer questions about his schedule. She did confirm Weill was not in trial Wednesday, during a week designated for criminal trials according to his schedule.

Kennedy is not the only defendant facing delays in Weill’s courtroom.

Defendant Martez Taylor was supposed to go to trial Sept. 10 — a second trial after the Mississippi Court of Appeals overturned his 2016 conviction of possessing a firearm after being convicted of a felony — but Weill continued his case to Jan. 14 due to a “scheduling conflict.”

Defendant Elvin Lee Johnson was supposed to have his day in court Sept. 24 but Weill continued his case until Jan. 14 for the same reason.

Routh said Weill recently cancelled the plea hearing for defendant Richard Epps, who has been in jail for 10 months on a charge dating back to 2012. Routh said the plea would have resulted in Epps’ departure from jail Tuesday.

Weill also cancelled his Monday docket, rescheduling 20 arraignments, hearings or other status meetings for criminal cases before him to Nov. 29 – after the runoff.

Ballard said she’s never received a complaint about how a judge balances his or her time during an election and the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct does not explicitly address this scenario.

Weill will step down from his circuit court seat at the end of the year. In the race to fill his old position, nearly every candidate cited a backlog of cases among the court’s greatest issues.

“One overarching, urgent problem is the backlog of cases. Judges control the docket and scheduling of cases,” judge candidate Matt Allen said in response to a Clarion Ledger questionnaire. “Criminal cases linger far too long in Hinds County. Regardless of whether you tend to view criminal matters from more of a law-and-order perspective or a civil liberties perspective, having criminal cases linger for years on end is incredibly problematic.”

Allen, an attorney, faces attorney and state Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, in the Nov. 27 runoff. If elected, Wooten said she would institute a timetable that ensures a trial within 90-120 days after an indictment.