HELENA-WEST HELENA — In this small but storied town, an overburdened and outdated court system allows criminal cases to languish in circuit court for years, only to be forgotten or dropped, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation shows.
Repeated continuances and an overloaded docket result in case dismissals because some trials are not held within the time limit set by law.
Many cases are doomed from the moment someone is arrested, simply because Phillips County’s justice system allows extraordinary room for error.
The Democrat-Gazette began investigating Phillips County’s court practices after FBI agents arrested five law enforcement officers on bribery charges and more than 60 other defendants on a variety of charges in connection with a multistate drug-trafficking ring.
After the arrests in what authorities called Operation Delta Blues, the newspaper examined the criminal histories of the defendants, then expanded its investigation to include other questionable cases.
In all, the Democrat-Gazette examined court docket books dating back to the mid-1990s, records from the sheriff ’s office and police departments and more than 5,000 court documents.
The newspaper found a judicial system rife with loopholes and archaic procedures.
In one case, 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.
In another instance, a man accused of attacking a deputy and biting his face saw his resulting charges dropped because of a delay in the prosecution of his case.
In the case of a third habitual defendant with a series of dropped cases, an FBI agent’s federal court testimony and wiretap recordings implied that it’s possible to buy one’s way out of a criminal conviction in Phillips County.
The FBI continues to investigate possible public corruption in the rural and dwindling city of 12,000.
Much of the dysfunction stems from the circuit court’s term system, which designates only eight weeks each year for criminal hearings and trials. While there are five circuit judges, only two hear criminal cases. The other three focus on civil proceedings. As a result, criminal cases have stacked up for years.
And a decades-long practice of sending city police investigative files to the sheriff has long kept police detectives in the dark as to whether their cases ever went to trial, the newspaper found. This unconventional arrangement recently ended, but the many leftover cases remain affected.
Law enforcement and court officials agree that their system is overtaxed and in desperate need of updating.
They say the current arrangement also gives defense attorneys the upper hand.
“The good lawyers know the system,” said Chief Deputy David Lawman of the Phillips County sheriff’s office.
“They’re not going to ask to continue their cases because they’ve got to go to trial within a certain amount of time. The trial time’s not there. The prosecutor has to either agree to probation or nolle prosse the case or he’ll completely lose it forever.”
This legal term, known properly as nolle prosequi, is a declaration by prosecutors that they will not pursue a case. They do, however, have a year to refile charges.
But in this part of the Delta, a year often isn’t enough time for that to happen, based on the case files reviewed by the Democrat-Gazette.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters, who is trying the Delta Blues drug-conspiracy cases, has noted in federal court that the number of “nolle prossed” cases in Phillips County is an eyebrow-raiser.
During one proceeding, she described the Phillips County court system as “lenient.”
Lawman says the FBI and U.S. attorneys just don’t understand the obstacles that one of the poorest counties in the state faces.
“We could use a full-time circuit judge and prosecutor in this county is my opinion,” the chief deputy said. “But the money is not there for it.”
Circuit Judge L.T. Simes, who presides over circuit court in Phillips County, told the Quorum Court last week that the current situation is dire.
“We just have cases that are falling through the cracks,” Simes said.
“I understand the concern about money, but I am more concerned about a court system that dispenses justice.”
The Democrat-Gazette found numerous indications of a failed justice system when looking through the criminal histories of defendants in the Delta Blues cases. Many of the defendants’ state court files showed no disposition of their state charges.
These cases hung in limbo for years, accumulating repeated court continuances - or lengthy, unexplained gaps in the files - before being nolle prossed or dismissed because of speedy-trial violations.
The law allows prosecutors a year to take a case to trial. That time can be extended for certain delays.
Take, for example, Joseph Blundell.
Blundell, 42, already had served two stints in prison for drug and battery convictions when, on July 21, 2002, he got into a fight with law-enforcement officers and, according to an affidavit, bit a deputy’s face.
A state trooper had to use a nightstick to pull Blundell off the deputy, the affidavit states.
Blundell was charged with first- and second-degree battery and resisting arrest.
Over the next four years, the case was continued numerous times, usually because of defense motions or docket congestion.
On May 15, 2006, Blundell’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss because of a speedy-trial violation.
One month later, the court granted Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Todd Murray’s motion to nolle prosse the case.
Three years later, on July 4, 2009, someone called the sheriff’s office to report that Blundell had beaten a man with a baseball bat and left him with a concussion, two broken ribs and a broken nose, court documents state.
The court record on this case is short on detail, and the judge granted a prosecution nolle prosse motion on Jan. 14, 2011.
Then there’s Lester Martin, who was accused along with two other men of shooting into a crowd at a nightclub in January 2008. Five people turned up at the emergency room with injuries.
Witnesses said Martin, then 27, and his purported accomplices then fled in a white Tahoe.
Martin was charged with five counts of first-degree battery. When he didn’t show up for court, he also garnered a failure-to-appear warrant.
His case file contains no record that he was ever arrested on that warrant.
Nothing else happened until May 26, 2011, the court record shows, when Murray filed a motion to nolle prosse the case.
The court granted it.
Last October, the U.S. attorney’s office publicly noted the number of cases that get nolle prossed in Phillips County.
Peters, the federal prosecutor, addressed the issue at a detention hearing for Michael Webb, who, according to the federal indictment, played a minor role in the drug-trafficking ring.
Accused of redistributing drugs that he obtained from admitted drug kingpin Sedrick Trice and other suppliers, Webb, 33, warranted only a brief mention in the indictment’s lengthy outline of drug trafficking in the Delta.
During Webb’s detention hearing, Peters suggested several times during questioning that Webb’s family members had found a way to work the justice system in Phillips County to their advantage.
During FBI agent Ward Seale’s testimony, prosecutors played two wiretap recordings in which Michael Webb bragged about how his father, Wayne Webb, had managed to “get rid of” criminal cases involving his children.
“My daddy’s paid over a quarter-million dollars to keep me out of jail,” Michael Webb said in one phone conversation.
In a second recording, Webb talked about how his father also had managed to takecare of Michael’s sister’s 2008 criminal case, which involved gun and drug charges.
Wayne Webb denies the allegations.
His son, he said, was just trying to play the big man when he boasted about his father making payoffs.
“That wasn’t true,” Wayne Webb said in a recent interview at his nightclub, the Queen of Clubs.
“That’s all he was doing was bragging on the phone. ... No one’s ever paid that money. I know that for a fact. That’s all that was - baloney. I guess maybe he was trying to fit in with those guys,” the father said.
The Democrat-Gazette found nine criminal cases against Michael Webb filed in Phillips County.
All but two were nolle prossed after languishing in the system for four to six years.
The charges against Michael Webb included harassment, kidnapping, battery, terroristic threatening and second-degree imprisonment.
Michael Webb typically pleaded no contest in district court and would then appeal to the circuit court.
The law allows this, and this happened in other cases, not just Michael Webb’s.
But once those cases left district court and entered the circuit-court system on appeal, they stalled, the Democrat-Gazette’s examination of Delta Blues defendants’ criminal histories revealed. Meanwhile, the accused continued to accrue new charges.
Some of Michael Webb’s cases were nolle prossed at the request of then-City Attorney Andre Valley. Other charges were dropped at Murray’s request.
Murray said he tried to get convictions for at least some of Michael Webb’s many alleged crimes.
But a chain of circumstances beyond his control thwarted his efforts to do so, he said.
“In [Michael Webb’s case], all those nolle prosses were probably entered at the same time,” Murray said. “I tried and tried to make a case.”
Court records show that clusters of Michael Webb’s cases were nolle prossed on March 5, 2004; May 27, 2005; and June 13, 2007.
Several fell apart because of uncooperative witnesses or outside influences, Murray said.
“I didn’t have a reasonable expectation of getting a conviction in those cases because the proof was so poor.”
For example, the alleged victim in some of the cases wanted the charges against Michael Webb dropped, he explained.
“I didn’t drop because of that. In the end, I could have made her testify, but she wouldn’t have made a credible witness.”
Those cases involved Holly Garrison, the mother of one of Michael Webb’s children, Murray said.
Another case, which involved undercover drug buys and a search warrant served at the Webb home, didn’t go anywhere because of law enforcement’s reluctance to identify confidential informants, Murray said.
After Michael Webb’s arrest, his father put an ad in the local newspaper in which he offered a reward for any information about who might have framed his son by placing methamphetamine-lab supplies on the Webb family’s property, the prosecutor said.
Wayne Webb confirmed that he did run such an ad.
Talking about the many nolle prossed cases involving his son, the elder Webb said, “Anybody can be charged with anything. ... But you’ve gotta get it cleared up.”
As for his son’s federal case, “I think when the truth comes out and everything, Michael will be all right.”
A CRITICAL DELAY
In Phillips County, criminal cases often follow a redundant and tangled route through the offices of city police, the sheriff, the prosecutor and the courts.
It’s all too easy for cases to be overlooked or simply forgotten, Circuit Judge Simes said.
In one case - a 2009 murder - a series of critical delays shows how the Phillips County justice system forgot about a 16-year-old charged in the killing.
On November 29, 2009, Casey Grant was arrested in a double shooting, court records show.
The case carried a wrinkle common in communities such as Helena-West Helena, where almost everybody is connected in some way. Marcus Hughes, one of the men Grant reportedly shot, has admitted to leading one of the drug rings targeted by the Delta Blues investigation. The other victim - Hughes’ brother, Ambrose Germany - died.
Grant’s public defender, Don Etherly, said that when he reviewed the case, he immediately saw a problem.
“[Grant] was in jail for an extended period of time before he was ever brought to court for arraignment. ... They lost him,” he said.
A defendant’s first court appearance is required to be held as soon after an arrest as possible, usually within a few days.
After his arrest, Grant was taken to the White River Juvenile Detention Center in Batesville, where he remained through his scheduled arraignment, Etherly said.
Grant was scheduled to make his initial appearance on Dec. 16, 2009, but court records show that he didn’t appear.
“Defendant not in county jail,” the court file reads.
“That’s him being lost,” Etherly said. “He’s in Batesville, so [the court] gets paperwork because he’s being charged as an adult, but he’s not in the jail.
“Nobody realizes he’s in Batesville.”
Records from the youthful-offender facility show that Helena-West Helena police took Grant there on Dec. 3, 2009.
After the missed court appearance, Grant fell through other cracks in the system, Etherly said.
“He was released at some point, allowed to go home and then picked back up again. And nobody knew about this until, I guess, the file eventually made it from the Police Department to the prosecutor’s office,” he said.
Records from the youthful-offender facility show that Grant was released Feb. 22, 2010. Two days later, he was arrested and taken to the Phillips County sheriff’s office, where someone from the White River center picked him up and took him back to juvenile detention.
That same day, Grant’s investigative file, completed by the Police Department, arrived at the sheriff’s office, records show. By then, nearly three months had passed since the teenager’s arrest - long after the 60 days that prosecutors are allotted to file formal charges if they plan to seek the defendant’s continued incarceration.
Murray said this wasn’t the first time the prosecutor’s office didn’t get an investigative file in time.
“I’ve had it happen before. That’s not the only case it’s happened in. ... I’ve written memos in the past trying to remind people of when those files need to be turned in. Sometimes they don’t. ... We’re constantly trying to improve on that situation.”
Nevertheless, Grant’s case fell dormant, his attorney said.
Although Grant was in juvenile detention, he was not in the juvenile system, Etherly said. But he also wasn't in the jail, where nearly all adult defendants are held.
“He’s in the system, but he’s out of the system,” Etherly said.
In July 2010, Etherly filed a motion summarizing the critical delay, arguing that his client should be released on his own recognizance pending trial.
The judge granted the motion.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 6, 2010, Grant was arrested in yet another shooting, court records show. Two men were wounded, but didn’t die.
In the second shooting case, Grant was arrested on a warrant of terroristic act and first-degree battery, court records show.
That was enough to put Grant back in juvenile detention at Batesville, Etherly said. But once again, months passed with no movement in this second case.
And once again, the state missed its 60-day deadline to file formal charges.
“After the time passed, I made many requests for him to be released,” Etherly said. “The judge always denied it.”
On Feb. 16, 2011, Murray filed a motion to revoke Grant’s release in the first case, arguing that the teenager posed a danger to the community because of the second shooting.
“There is a substantial risk of continued criminal activity if the Defendant is released into the community,” the prosecutor wrote.
The court later revoked Grant’s release, and he remained jailed.
A trial date was set in the first shooting case.
Then, in October 2011, the federal Delta Blues sting netted Hughes, one of the victims in the first shooting.
Meanwhile, another witness, a neighbor, had disappeared, Murray said.
The loss of the witness weakened the case considerably, he said. So did Hughes’ indictment in the federal drug case.
The result: As part of a plea agreement in February 2012, Grant pleaded to manslaughter and first-degree battery in the first shooting. The agreement was a rare legal filing called an Alford plea, which allowed Grant to plead to the charges while maintaining his innocence, Etherly said.
“Todd [Murray] recognized that he had some problems with the identification [of Grant], not to mention the fact that his key witness is going to come in arrested in Delta Blues,” Etherly said. “You start throwing all that stuff into the mix, it became a bad case.”
Judge Richard Proctor imposed a 20-year probation sentence, noting at the bottom of his order the reasons that the sentence was a departure from the statutory minimum prison sentence: “Eyewitness in federal custody; other witness whereabouts unknown.”
In an April interview, Murray said he felt that he did his best in the case with the evidence he had against Grant. He also struck a different tone concerning the danger Grant posed to the community from what he’d voiced in his February 2011 motion to revoke Grant’s release from jail.
“That was a strong possibility that we may not be able to meet our burden of proof in the case,” he said. “On the other hand, you’ve got a youthful offender that’s willing to enter a plea. Put him on a very long-term probation. Hopefully, he’ll never offend again.”
Murray also chose not to file charges in the second shooting largely because the two victims had previous arrests.
“Both of those individuals had been involved in a lot of trouble. Credibility suspect at best. One thing I was convinced of is that the defendant Grant had a weapon in his possession after he was released on bail in this other murder case,” he said.
“There’s two different things being analyzed here. One is, should he still be out on bail? Two would be, should this other case result in a formal filing of an information? It didn’t rise to that level.”
And now too much time has passed for charges to be filed.
‘A FILING THING’
Grant’s case got lost in a decades-old practice in which municipal police departments in Phillips County routinely handed over their completed criminal investigations to the sheriff’s office and relied on deputies or the sheriff to give the files to Murray.
But last fall, Helena-West Helena Police Chief Uless Wallace and Marvell Police Chief Vincent Bell balked. They cited two reasons:
They never knew if - or when - their cases were going to trial. And they were left unable to explain to victims and their families what had happened to cases that never went to court or were eventually dropped.
“It kind of threw us in the middle of, ‘We were doing all the work but we have no say-so on our cases,’” Wallace said. “Then I’m left to blame, or whoever the chief is at the time. ... I was like, ‘Why are we doing this step?’ It doesn’t make sense to me.”
In the past, the Helena-West Helena Police Department sent its cases to the sheriff via certified mail and filed the returned slips.
But while the slips showed that the sheriff received the files, the Police Department had no way of tracking what happened to the files once they were in Sheriff Ronnie White’s hands, Wallace said.
“We were submitting a lot of these felony cases and were asking, ‘Where are they going?’” he explained. “Are you kind of seeing where the breakdown occurred?”
The department still doesn’t know exactly how many files never made it out of White’s office and into Murray’s hands, Wallace said.
As for Bell, he now sends copies of his department’s investigations directly to Murray, in addition to those sent to the sheriff.
For years, though, when Bell served as chief of the former West Helena Police Department, he had submitted felony case files to White’s office without question. He said he didn’t realize the practice was uncommon until he became chief of the Marianna Police Department in 2009.
“Each individual agency, I think we’ve learned something - that we should track them anyway and not rely on someone else to track them,” he said.
White said the old system was in place when he went to work for the sheriff’s office 24 years ago, and he retained it when he entered office in 2000.
Once the sheriff’s office received the files from police investigators, White or a deputy would gather additional information - such as jail records - before passing cases on to the prosecutor’s office, he said, adding, “It was just a filing thing.”
Once cases arrived at Murray’s office, the prosecutor’s secretary would prepare the affidavits summarizing the city’s investigation, and then they would go to White for his signature, the sheriff said.
“I’d skim over them. Sign them. My secretary notarized them, and we’d go over to the district judge.”
White said he didn’t review the investigations in depth nor did he decide what would or wouldn’t go to the prosecutor for consideration. He handled the affidavits in an effort to move things along, he said.
“The reason that was done that way was that it either put in the sheriff’s name or a deputy’s name so that when the information came over here we didn’t have to run hell and half acre trying to find the investigating officer and get him to sign off on it. We’d sign off on it.”
Murray said he never questioned the former arrangement until the two police departments decided to send their investigative files directly to him.
TOO MANY CASES
Murray, who works only part time as the county’s sole prosecutor while maintaining a private practice, blames an increasingly heavier caseload for the long delays before cases are either tried or dropped.
In the early 1990s, he used to complain about having 100 active cases.
But now, “I could keep several lawyers busy. Hands down,” Murray said.
Even as he juggles his own law firm’s cases, he must grapple with 300 to 400 active state cases.
Simply deciding which state cases deserve priority consideration is the biggest challenge, Murray said. Many times, smaller cases are bumped so that those involving more serious charges can be tried, he explained.
Delays are exacerbated by the 1st Judicial District’s term system, in which circuit court is held only quarterly.
Etherly, the public defender, summed up the current situation: “We have population decrease. Poor economic conditions. ... We have decline in revenue. With all of that stuff comes an increase in crime. And so they kind of go hand in hand. And you’ve got these judges who have to travel around to these six different counties, and it just puts a strain on the entire system.”
Murray said that under the current system, one big murder trial, or even just one involving several witnesses and days of court time, can wreak havoc on the already congested docket.
As a result, many “smaller” cases are continued over and over again.
Etherly said the delays give defense attorneys a bargaining chip when it comes to negotiated pleas.
“They’re not going to try my case, so all I can do is sit back and wait and they’ll continue it to the next term of court,” he explained.
Then, if another murder case goes to trial that term, “what happens is people who have maybe first-time offenses or who have low-level offenses don’t have to run to court to plea. There’s no pressure to do that,” Etherly said.
Most nonviolent cases routinely get pushed back, he added.
“Like I said, we don’t have the resources to deal with it. Now, don’t get me wrong, on the defense side, that’s great. A defendant doesn’t have to worry about going to trial unless it’s a murder or aggravated robbery or rape - something like that,” he said.
“The average felony case, the ones that annoy people the most - the burglaries, the things like that - end up being like a can that gets kicked down the road.”
Many private defense attorneys routinely ask for continuances at the beginning of the term, Etherly said.
Judge Simes said he doesn’t blame defense attorneys and their continuances for the clogged docket.
“When a person is tried for murder, under the speedy trial rules ... he can get the murder charge dismissed if he can find a way to not be tried in a year,” the judge explained. “I’m not saying anything against defense attorneys. They’re doing their jobs.”
Etherly explained: “The prosecutor knows that he probably won’t be able to get to [those cases] so he won’t oppose it because continuances by the defendant don’t create a speedy-trial problem.... It doesn’t run against the state.”
Murray thinks that adding another circuit judge would help.
“We need more resources for prosecutors and law enforcement down here, definitely,” he added.
Etherly agreed that it would help to have another judge.
“It wouldn’t even need to be a full-time judge,” he added. “If there was someone else to help, we’d have more time to actually be in court.”
But getting another judge isn’t likely to happen, he added.
“As I understand it, Phillips County is at the bottom of the list, the pecking order. We’ve had these conversations many times over the years and we realize if somebody gets another judge it won’t be us. It will be Washington County, Pulaski County.”
Simes blames disorganization. He wants the county to hire a case coordinator to address that problem.
“The big issue is the way the 1st Judicial Circuit is structured,” Simes said.
“It’s been that way forever. The delays are caused because it’s not as organized as it could be. Not in today’s time.”
After the Democrat-Gazette ran a story about Sedrick Trice - who should have been in prison rather than running a drug-trafficking ring in the city’s business district - Simes appeared before the Phillips County Quorum Court to ask for money to hire a criminal-case coordinator.
A congested docket already had forced him to add a third week of criminal cases to the current court term, at the expense of civil cases, he told the justices of the peace.
Simes said he felt that the circuit court wasn’t adhering to an Arkansas Supreme Court opinion handed down last year. The opinion regarded two motions filed in another judicial district. Filed in 2002, they weren’t ruled on until August 2011.
In the opinion, Justice Robert L. Brown said the case was an example of “unacceptable” delays.
“The circuit court has the obligation of ensuring that each matter filed receives a reasonably prompt disposition,” Brown wrote.
“Without such a tracking system for monitoring the filings in the circuit courts, the administration of justice is hampered, and petitioners are denied an effective disposition of their cases, which should be the hallmark of any judicial system.”
Simes, pointing to a four page listing of unheard cases dating back four years, told Quorum Court members that delays in the Phillips County Circuit Court also are egregious.
“We’re going to have some trials on some 2008 cases in 2012,” Simes noted. “Is that reasonably prompt?
“I’m not calling people names or casting aspersions on anyone’s office or agency,” he continued, “I’m just saying a problem exists, and I’m saying we need to do something about it.”
County, city officials speak
All agree that the current court system allows criminal defendants and their cases to fall through the cracks. The vexing question: How to fix it?
“We’re going to have to ... come up with a system that will benefit the local law enforcement agencies.”
Ronnie White, Phillips County sheriff
“The big issue is the way the 1st Judicial Circuit is structured.”
Judge L.T. Simes
“We were doing all the work but we have no say-so on our cases.”
Uless Wallace, police chief, Helena-West Helena
“I could keep several lawyers busy. Hands down.”
Todd Murray, deputy prosecuting attorney, Phillips County
“We prefer to ... file our own cases.”
Vincent Bell, police chief, Marvell
© 2012, ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE