- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A federal judge Thursday ordered Lauderdale County officials to make a list of inmates who don’t have lawyers, questioning whether the county is doing enough to ensure that inmates are sufficiently represented and come to trial quickly.

The order by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves came in a hearing for inmate Maurice Blackshear, who was jailed for months without an indictment or a lawyer after he was unable to post $25,000 bail.

Reeves has been hotly critical of pretrial detentions, especially when defendants are being held because they can’t pay bail and lack lawyers. Other jurisdictions in Mississippi and elsewhere have been sued over similar practices, with allegations that they’re violating federal and state guarantees of a speedy trial.

In June, Reeves blasted state court judges statewide for long detentions, even as he ruled a Hinds County inmate held 23 months couldn’t legally collect damages after charges were dismissed. Reeves wrote that since the state Supreme Court last overturned a criminal conviction in 1992 for lack of a speedy trial, judges have been dodging the issue because they don’t want to dismiss charges against accused criminals.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court’s rulings have sent a clear message: the court lacks the will to hold prosecutors and trial judges accountable for egregious delays in criminal cases. The result is that accused person waits longer and longer to go to trial,” Reeves wrote in the June 10 ruling dismissing a lawsuit by Rodrick Patterson.

Reeves said Thursday he’s found 35 petitions from Lauderdale County inmates asking federal judges to release them because of speedy trial violations. The judge didn’t give a time frame for the filings.

“Something needs to be put in place to make sure someone doesn’t fall through the cracks in this way.” Reeves said.

Blackshear, arrested on burglary charges in June 2015, asked Reeves to release him from jail or get his burglary charge dismissed. While Blackshear was in jail, he was indicted for assaulting a police officer. An additional arson charge brought against him while he was jailed awaits grand jury action.

Reeves said Blackshear might have never faced additional charges if he hadn’t sat in jail while three separate Lauderdale County grand juries met without considering his case.

“Had an attorney been representing him, it may be he could have gotten a lower bond or could have gotten out,” the judge said.

District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell told Reeves that it was Blackshear’s responsibility to ask for a lawyer, and said his office waits to present a case to a grand jury until police agencies are ready. Mitchell pledged he would meet with judges in the county and seek to assign public defenders to people in jail awaiting indictment. He also said Blackshear’s burglary and arson charges would be presented to a grand jury beginning next week.

“If someone has been in jail for seven months and hasn’t been indicted and he doesn’t have an attorney yet, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” Mitchell said.

Blackshear, representing himself, told Reeves that he briefly had a lawyer while appearing in Meridian city court, but that inmates in the Lauderdale County Jail only get appointed lawyers after they’re indicted.

His situation mirrors allegations brought against Scott County in a 2014 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center. There, two inmates say they were illegally jailed without an attorney or grand jury hearing. U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate ruled against some of the claims last year, while others are pending.

MacArthur Center lawyer Cliff Johnson said jurisdictions trying to save money don’t appoint lawyers until people are indicted, leaving prisoners who can’t afford bail in legal limbo.

“The law requires that lawyers be presented at critical stages of the defense,” Johnson said.

Reeves set a Sept. 19 conference to further discuss the Lauderdale County situation.


Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide