DA Alleges Racism; Former DA Weighs In | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

DA Alleges Racism; Former DA Weighs In

Even as Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith is alleging racism in the Hinds County Justice system, his African American predecessor says that it was her job to find a way to work within the parameters set by the judge.

Smith alleged last week in a three-page Jan. 16 letter (PDF, 234 KB) that he has "witnessed a pattern of conduct, among some white legal practitioners, that are ultimately harmful to the representation of criminal defendants in Hinds County." Smith wrote that "some white practitioners, under the guise of vigorously defending their clients, engage in a pattern of devising tactics that are procedurally improper, and that are designed to undermine the representation by the state of Mississippi by its African-American District Attorney.

The district attorney alleged in his letter that the Hinds County Court Judge William Barnett worked with county defense attorneys to move up a Jan. 20 preliminary hearing for 16-year-old murder suspect Bruce Wade to Jan. 15 without notifying either the DA's office or the Jackson Police Department in time to prepare a proper argument.

"Although there was a county prosecutor available to argue if necessary," Smith wrote, his office was notified that the hearing "was being held at that moment."

The "impromptu hearing," he said, "gave the appearance that this was set in order to give credence to the assumption that the State of Mississippi was unprepared to represent the victim in this case."

News teams had already been alerted of the hearing, and according to Smith, were waiting around to witness and "assign fault to the Hinds County District Attorney's office for the second release of confessed murderers into the community of Hinds County."

This second release would precede Wade's Jan. 1 release, after Smith's office failed to indict Wade for the murder of Ridgeland mother Rebecca Bolton-Mack. Barnett told reporters that he would continue to set release dates for Wade and other accused killers if they're not indicted by a certain date, telling The Clarion-Ledger that "[a]ny delays won't be on my watch."

Barnett began threatening release dates in an attempt to speed up grand jury trials and keep unconvicted detainees from lingering in Hinds County jail for many months, sometimes years, while awaiting trial. Barnett had set Wade's release for Jan. 1 in October, though Smith's office pressed the Jackson Police Department to issue a second arrest warrant on Wade for a conspiracy to commit armed robbery charge arising out of the Bolton-Mack murder.

Smith claimed at the Jan. 15 hearing that he had no forewarning on the matter, although county defense attorney William LaBarr gave Judge Barnett print-outs of e-mail delivery receipt notices from Smith's secretary and Assistant District Attorney Frank Jones, showing both had received notification e-mails from the office of public defense.

Acknowledging Smith's ill-preparedness, the judge rescheduled the hearing for Jan. 20.

Smith disputes the judge's right to enact "time-triggered release" of suspects, pointing out that the defendants had only been in jail for three months, and that the issue of triggered releases had been a contentious argument between the public defender's office and Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Swan Yerger in 2008.

Barnett said he believes county judges have jurisdiction through the preliminary hearing, but that anything following the preliminary hearing is an issue for the circuit court.

Mississippi College School of Law Professor Matt Steffey told the Jackson Free Press that Smith's office likely had the power to file motions with circuit court to quash release dates in anticipation of release.

"A circuit judge could certainly modify the conditions of release. There may be some overlap in that period between arrest and first change and indictment, where it's not clear to me that there's a sharp break in jurisdiction, but as far as I know, he does have the authority to go in to circuit court and ask for a change in the conditions of bond," Steffey said.

Former Hinds County District Attorney Peterson, whom Smith unseated in a contentious 2007 Democratic run-off election with wide support in the white community, said any racism she encountered in the county courts never manifested in court proceedings.

"If there were rulings that I did not agree with, my function was to find a way to work within the procedures that they wanted to follow. If the judge says he wanted trials to begin on Tuesday, then it was not my place to challenge that," said Peterson, an African American woman whom Smith defeated last year. She now works as a private attorney.

"I had to deal with the same issue that Mr. Smith is dealing with, but I found ways around them."

Smith did not return calls for comment.

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.