Court Spat Ensnares Defendants, Taxpayers | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Court Spat Ensnares Defendants, Taxpayers

A controversy brewing at the Hinds County Courthouse around Judge Jeff Weill has the potential to cost taxpayers big money.

A controversy brewing at the Hinds County Courthouse around Judge Jeff Weill has the potential to cost taxpayers big money. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

The list of cases Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Weill has taken from the county public defender's office and assigned to private attorneys has swelled to more than 60 and keeps growing.

The shuffle all stems from a tiff between Weill and Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Alison Kelly.

In letters to the Board of Supervisors, Weill accused Kelly of unlawfully running a private legal practice outside her work as a public defender and exhibiting disrespectful and unprofessional conduct.

Currently, the dispute is in front of the Mississippi Supreme Court, which recently ordered Weill to provide details about his allegations against Kelly. Weill filed his response on April 10; Kelly has until April 15 to answer Weill.

In the meantime, public defenders are concerned about their clients and the representation they're receiving. Leslie Lee, who heads the Office of the State Public Defender, wrote in a friend of the court brief submitted in late March that "no constitutionally effective of assistance can be rendered when a judge interferes with independent (legal) representation."
 Hinds County Public Defender Michele Harris, Kelly's boss, also drew ire from Weill, who cited Harris and another public defender, Greg Spore, with criminal contempt and fined them $100 each.

Harris said the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants not only the right to a competent lawyer but the right to continuous counsel.

"When you switch horses in midstream, it can cause problems in a case and those problems can hurt your clients," Harris told the Jackson Free Press.

'Increasingly Obstreperous'

In documents filed with the Supreme Court, Weill writes that "Kelly's poor behavior has been an issue throughout the undersigned's tenure on the bench," which began 2011 when Weill vacated his position as a Jackson city councilman from Ward 1, "but (she) has become increasingly obstreperous since the end of 2012."

Weill said Harris honored his request to reassign Kelly to a different judge in 2013, but later that year Kelly "inexplicably" went back to Weill's courtroom.

Harris told the Jackson Free Press that the office was understaffed and, because Weill's courtroom is "rigorous," she wanted an experienced, aggressive senior assistant public defender assigned to Weill.

"I believe we've had great success in Judge Weill's courtroom, and I think that's when issues arise—he takes it as disrespectful, and that kind of fans the flames," Harris said.

Weill denied the claim that he reassigned Kelly because she was persuading juries to find defendants not guilty.

"The trial court has no interest in which side 'wins' or 'loses' in court," Weill wrote.

Weill accuses Kelly of illegally practicing law under the rubric of Alison O. Kelly, PLLC, for at least five civil clients, sometimes during times when she was also working as a public defender. Harris said she knew Kelly had sometimes done some pro bono civil legal work before Harris' appointment as public defender in 2011, but that she discouraged the practice and, as far as she knows, the practice has stopped.

Throughout his response, Weill also repeatedly questions Kelly's competence in his response to the Supreme Court. On at least two occasions, he claims, Kelly abandoned mentally ill defendants who were declared incompetent to stand trial. One of these men was Elton McClaurin.

In an interview with the Jackson Free Press last year about the number of prisoners awaiting evaluations at Whitfield, Harris cited the lack of so-called forensic beds reserved for incarcerated patients and delays by prosecutors as reasons mentally ill prisoners languish in jail.

Weill writes in his response that Kelly failed to have McClaurin transferred the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield and in 2013 was charged with killing his cellmate Larry McLaurin (no relation).

Usurping Authority

The private lawyers receiving clients from the public defenders include sole practitioners and corporate firms such as the Brunini firm, Young Wells, Baker Donelson and at least one attorney who the Mississippi Bar Association lists as working for BlueCross BlueShield.

Now, some of the firms, who had agreed to take the cases pro bono, have withdrawn, court records show.

The private attorneys who take on cases of people too poor to hire their own lawyers won't get rich—in some cases, they will receive substantially less than their regular fees—but in any case, county taxpayers could be on the hook for extra bills. Senior Judge Tomie Green issued an order in 2011 prohibiting court-appointed lawyers from charging more than $60 per hour and capped the rates depending on the kind of offense.

Paper crimes like bouncing checks and forgery draw a maximum fee of $900 and another $200 for expenses. More serious cases, like armed robbery and murder, are capped at $3,600 and $800 for expenses, but attorneys can petition the circuit judge to charge more.

Harris also believes Weill's public-defender shuffle could give defendants fodder to appeal their cases, which will drain the county's budget even more, she said.

In anticipation of having to pay the private attorneys, Pieter Teeuwissen, the Hinds County board attorney, told supervisors April 6 that Weill is "arguably usurping your authority by hiring private attorneys and expecting you to pay for it."

Hinds County supervisors eventually voted on a new policy that would preclude county employees from hiring outside vendors for any service that another county department could provide unless getting permission from the board.

Despite his reputation as being tough on criminal defendants, Harris said her office's defiance isn't about Judge Weill.

"This issue is bigger than Alison Kelly, it's bigger than the Hinds County Public Defender's Office; it's bigger than Jeff Weill. I would have done the same thing if it was Judge (Tomie) Green, Judge (Bill) Gowan or Judge (Winston) Kidd. We're aggressive in our representation, and I think that's what you have to do be a good defense attorney," Harris told the Jackson Free Press.

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