Broken justice in Phillips County
Special report: Drug dealers, fugitives and a court system in disarray
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette uncovered years of errors, dysfunction and archaic procedures in the Phillips County sheriff's office and the county's justice system during a year-long investigation. Since the first articles, the sheriff has made some changes and court officials significantly cut the case backlog. But problems persist in Phillips County. The multi-part series is below.
The Phillips County sheriff’s office didn’t carry out an October 2008 Arkansas Court of Appeals order sentencing Trice to 20 years in state prison. Instead, Trice remained free and went on to run a thriving multi-state drug ring that dealt hundreds of pounds of marijuana and cocaine in eastern Arkansas. Sheriff Ronnie White said that his office didn’t receive the order and that he wasn’t aware of it until after Trice’s arrest by federal authorities last year. Trice is now serving a 40-year federal prison sentence for his role in the drug crimes.
The sheriff’s policy of not entering failure-to-appear warrants into the Arkansas Crime Information Center’s database allowed fugitives to live freely in Phillips County for years without fear of arrest. Although numerous fugitives, including Trice, were stopped for traffic offenses, arrested on misdemeanor charges or appeared in district court, they didn’t have to fear arrest on outstanding felony warrants. One consequence of the policy: the dismissal of a case against an area pastor accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Another fugitive was accused of committing murder during the time he remained free.
The Phillips County judicial system’s loopholes, archaic procedures and an overloaded docket resulted in numerous case dismissals because some trials weren’t held within the time limit set by law. The dysfunction also led to several miscues: A then-16-year-old murder defendant got lost in the system, causing critical delays that prompted his release while awaiting trial. During the few weeks he was free, he was arrested in another shooting.
The newspaper found that 35 fugitives’ cases were vulnerable to dismissal because of long-unserved fugitive warrants. At the time, the fugitives — who faced charges of child rape, aggravated robbery, home invasion or serious drug-trafficking — made up more than a third of Phillips County’s fugitive cases involving Y felonies, the state’s most serious offenses carrying a sentence of ten years to life in prison.
Even though Deandra Cortez Smith faced multiple felony charges in a nightclub shooting and was wanted on a fugitive warrant in that case, no one arrested him — even when he had several brushes with the law. Since the warrant wasn’t entered into any law enforcement database, Smith was able to walk into a pawn shop and purchase a variety of high-powered guns — a federal crime to which he admitted guilt in November.
Phillips County Sheriff Ronnie White routinely failed to hold on to fugitives locked up in his own jail, releasing them even though many were wanted in violent or drug-related crimes, records show. Combined, the fugitives made up about a quarter of Phillips County’s fugitives wanted in the most serious of felony cases, a Democrat-Gazette investigation found. After their release, some illegally bought firearms while others remained in Phillips County, where they accumulated more criminal charges. Still others, jail records show, were released from the county jail and extradited to out-of-state law enforcement agencies to face less severe charges than the ones that were pending in Phillips County.