Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca, who says he was blocked by state prison officials from seeing a client for more than a week, was allowed access to the man on Friday, but only after suing the Department of Correction to force the disclosure of the inmate's whereabouts.
The meeting came two days after Benca filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court against the department on behalf of 30-year-old Antoine Ramon Jackson of North Little Rock.
Jackson is awaiting trial on a capital-murder charge over accusations he shot 28-year-old Emily Nash, his girlfriend, to death in May 2014 at her Springdale apartment.
The six-page suit was filed Wednesday after prison officials refused for five days to connect Benca with Jackson or tell him where his client was.
Benca said Friday that, while he had been able to meet with Jackson, he was not immediately withdrawing the complaint about the agency to Circuit Judge Tim Fox.
In the suit, Benca accused prison officials of violating Jackson's constitutional right to an attorney as well as state law, Arkansas Code 16-85-101, which bars authorities from preventing inmates from talking to their lawyers. Breaking the law is a misdemeanor that carries up to six months in jail, the lawsuit states.
"Counsel is entitled to access to [Jackson] with limited restriction to discuss matters related to his current criminal charge in Washington County," the suit states. "Plaintiff's attorneys are officers of the court and understand the responsibilities that flow from that position."
According to pleadings in the criminal case, Benca reported in February that prison officials had been preventing him from contacting Jackson since November. Jackson was in the state prison at Brickeys for violating parole.
In a February motion to delay the criminal trial in Washington County, Benca reported to the court that prison officials have blocked him from meeting with or talking to Jackson on at least four occasions.
Benca stated that the fifth time Jackson's lawyers tried to meet with him was on Jan. 30 at the Washington County jail. But that meeting had to be called off because Jackson had not been brought to the jail despite a court order five days earlier to transfer Jackson from prison as soon as possible.
Benca warned then that the problems he was encountering in consulting with Jackson were crippling his efforts to get ready for trial, an argument that persuaded the trial judge to reschedule the five-day trial until May 22 -- the fourth time the proceedings have been delayed, court files show.
"It is vitally necessary that defendant be allowed additional time to prepare for jury trial due to defense counsel's inability to confer with defendant in this matter. Counsel would be grossly negligent if all witnesses are not interviewed before trial, and all matters concerning mitigation are not fully investigated," Benca wrote the court in February.
Prison spokesman Solomon Graves wouldn't answer questions Wednesday about Jackson.
In the lawsuit, Benca stated that he learned on March 16 that Jackson had been moved from the Brickeys facility to a hospital. But he only got that information because he'd subscribed to an automatic prisoner-monitoring service for crime victims.
When Benca contacted prison officials that same day to find out what was going on, he was told he needed to provide a medical-privacy waiver so the department could tell him what had happened to Jackson, the suit states.
Despite providing that waiver by fax as requested, prison health officials continued to refuse to release any information, the suit says.
When another official asked for the waiver, Benca sent it again, but never got a response, the suit states.
When his office called on March 17 to find out why Benca wasn't getting any answers, officials asked for a more detailed written request, which the lawyers then faxed to them.
The weekend passed without a response from the Correction Department. When Benca called on Monday to find out what was going on, he was told that the prison department would give him nothing without the permission of a relative of Jackson's, the defendant's emergency contact, the lawsuit states.
Benca states he also learned Monday that Jackson was in a Pulaski County hospital, but prison officials would not say which one.
On Tuesday, Benca and his associates tried to arrange a formal conference with Jackson at the Brickeys unit.
Prison officials did not respond to their request until Wednesday, telling the attorneys that they would not be allowed to meet with Jackson, according to the lawsuit that was filed that same day.
"We were advised that no attorney visit could be made because we were not on his contact list," the lawsuit states. "This position is absurd because his attorneys and the rest of his team have had unfettered access to Plaintiff in both the [prison] and the Washington County Detention Center."
That final denial came from George Wilson, the head of the Correction Department's medical services division, the suit states.
"Mr. Wilson further advised that since he cannot reveal the hospital where [Jackson] is receiving his care, then he could not authorize an attorney visit," the suit states. "Mr. Wilson further stated that he didn't know why he would need an attorney visit in light of the condition [that Jackson] was in."
Wilson is a defendant in the lawsuit along with Correction Department director Wendy Kelley; Jeremy Andrews, warden of the East Regional Unit in Brickeys; and the facility's medical director.
On Friday, Benca declined to comment on his client's medical condition and location.
Jackson, a parolee, was arrested by Little Rock four days after his girlfriend was killed. Police pulled over his car and reported finding 27 grams of marijuana -- almost an ounce, court records show.
He was charged with drug trafficking and transferred to the Washington county jail the next day, but he was not arrested by Springdale police in Nash's slaying until November 2015.
Jackson was returned to prison in April 2016 for violating parole. Prison records show he was on parole on 10 felony convictions from Benton, Franklin, Sebastian and Washington counties between February 2008 and January 2014.
Six of those convictions are for drugs, one is for aggravated assault, another is for having prohibited items in jail and two are for failure to appear.
He was twice sanctioned by prison officials in October for possessing contraband and failing to obey an order.
Metro on 03/25/2017
Print Headline: Lawyer: State illegally kept him from client