Retired Coahoma County Judge Joe Webster, who is presiding over Mayor Frank Melton's trial next week, is a personality with little patience for "dilly-dally," say lawyers who have worked with him.
"Joe is a pretty common-sense, no-nonsense judge. If I would characterize him in one sentence, I'd say he's going cut to the chase quickly, and he's not going to listen to any fluff or B.S.," Coahoma County trial attorney and business owner Bill Luckett told the Jackson Free Press. "He's going to rule as soon as he thinks he's got enough to make an informed decision. In fact, it sounds like that's what he's already doing down there in Jackson."
Webster mowed right through the panoply of pre-trial motions in the felony trial of Melton and his city-paid bodyguards Michael Recio and Marcus Wright Friday.
Luckett said Webster , also the former youth court judge there, is renowned in Coahoma County for cutting through unnecessary paperwork. "I don't think he's going to listen to a whole lot of fluff and nonsense about the case," Luckett said.
Webster served as a county court judge in Clarksdale for two decades, after unseating the incumbent in 1982. Webster retired in 2002 and is now a mediator and occasionally serves as a special judge at the recommendation of the Mississippi Supreme Court to oversee problematic cases. Many of the cases involve defendants with compromising connections to local judges. The Supreme Court recently called on Webster to oversee the case of Adams County Circuit Clerk M.L. "Binkey" Vines on 13 counts of embezzlement after local judges recused themselves from that case.
"Everybody knows him. Joe is a fixture here," said Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale. "To be frank, Joe's family is Clarksdale. Both the city and the person go way back. Joe ran for county judge and never lost. He was very popular."
Webster's Clarksdale ties run deep. His cousin is Clarksdale's former mayor, Richard Webster. He enjoys the blues-saturated atmosphere of the Delta city and frequently haunts the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman. The judge's wife, Ann H. Webster, is a former schoolteacher who later became superintendent of Coahoma County Schools.
Webster made reference to his wife in court Friday, when defense lawyers were arguing with the judge over his interpretation of a law that requires probable-cause hearings for public officials before they are arrested. Webster said that probable-cause hearings were unnecessary if a grand jury indicts the defendant.
"I don't need any schooling," Webster said when defense lawyers disputed his interpretation. "I know that one. My wife is a schoolteacher."
Coahoma County attorney Kemp Haney vouched for Webster's work as a judge. "I'm not saying he always ruled like I thought he ought to, but I think he's been fair. He knows the law, he's intelligent, and he's got a lot of common sense. I've never known him to have any agendas, and I've never known him to be afraid to make a ruling," Haney said. "He just goes in and gets the job done."
If the Friday pre-trial hearing is any indication, Webster has little patience for delays. Defense attorneys argued that "the unusual speed" of the grand jury indictments indicated prosecutorial bias, but Webster was having none of it. "If I would have had my way, we would have tried this case in February, and we would have done so had I not had rotator cuff surgery," Webster said. "I feel bad for other defendants who are waiting longer for their day in court, but that has no bearing on this case."
Luckett agreed that Webster was often in a hurry. "I don't want to say he's impatient with hearing cases, but he hears enough from both sides and then makes a decision and hurries up with it. He's pretty quick at cutting away the political side of the issues," Luckett said. "He's not going to dilly-dally around and wear something out like some judges, who will over-analyze something to death."
Last month, after Danks successfully petitioned the Mississippi Supreme Court to remove Judge Tomie Green from overseeing Melton's probation, the court promptly assigned Webster in her place. Webster dismissed Melton's probation violations, calling them "technical, at best."
Some Jacksonians took this as a sign that Webster would be biased in Melton's favor. "If you're rich, and you got friends in high places, you've got influence," said Jackson resident Ted Porter. "Melton's gotten away with a lot, and you don't get away with these kinds of things if you don't have friends in the courts."
Magnolia Bar District Director Jaribu Hill said Webster's might be problematic. "I don't have any read on this temperament on the bench, but I know he and his family are very well connected in Clarksdale and the surrounding community. You can't (rule out) that they could have come in contact at some point in their lives," Hill said.
Coahoma County Supervisor Johnny Newson took offense at the suggestion that Webster could be biased. "I don't think your mayor's circle and Webster's circle have had a chance to cross, and even if they had crossed, it's not going to influence (Webster)," Newson said. "He's going to go by the law, and I don't think the Supreme Court could have picked a better person for this case.
I have to say for being one of the 'fix is in' members, from what I saw the Judge is being very fair.
I still can't shake that 'fix is in' feeling because I think the Melton's cronies will be scoping the jury pool, and getting a bead on who they have to zero in on. It just takes one right? If the DA gets a chance, I would ask what church any potential jurors attend! ;-)
Any idea of how long the trial will last?
- golden eagle