LITTLE ROCK -- A sentencing hearing for a St. Francis County man facing a possible life sentence for trafficking a 6-year-old girl for sex, got off to a raucous, albeit aborted start after U.S. District Judge Brian Miller first admonished a group of attorneys who were in the courtroom to observe the hearing for talking too loudly, then abruptly terminated the hearing after chiding the defendant's attorney for not having adequately prepared his client for the hearing.
Mario Waters, 34, of Palestine, pleaded guilty last October to one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor in connection with a federal indictment charging him and another man, Demarcus George, 28, of Little Rock, with the conspiracy count and one count of sex trafficking of a minor.
At Waters' plea hearing, according to a summary of the plea facts, he admitted that he raped a 6-year-old girl who later was diagnosed with HIV and three venereal diseases. Waters later tested positive to two of the same venereal diseases, according to court records.
Several minutes prior to the start of the hearing Wednesday morning, as Miller sat at the bench but before Waters was escorted in from holding by federal marshals, a group of attorneys from the U.S. attorney's office entered the courtroom to observe and began talking among themselves while waiting for the hearing to begin. After a few minutes, as the volume of conversation increased, Miller looked up from the bench and asked the group to quiet down but got no response. Miller then picked up his gavel and slammed it sharply on the bench four times as a shocked hush fell over the courtroom.
"Let's hold it down," Miller said angrily. "We're talking like we're out on the block out there. We're in a federal courtroom."
Not another word was said until Miller called the courtroom to order once Waters was brought in and seated with his attorney, Adam Childers of North Little Rock.
"When you entered a plea I probably told you that Probation was going to go out and perform a presentence investigation," Miller told Waters. "I have a report that's dated Dec. 2, 2021. Have you had a chance to look at it yet?"
"Is that the PSR [presentence report]?" Waters replied. "Yes sir, I just seen it yesterday."
"OK, and ..." Miller started, then abruptly stopped and looked up sharply at the defense table.
"Yesterday was the first chance you had to look it over?" Miller said, then to Childers, incredulously, "Did you not go over the PSR with your client until yesterday?"
Childers said he had mailed a copy of the report to Waters at the Jefferson County jail, where his client is being housed in federal custody.
"Here's the thing, though," Miller said. "For a person who's facing life imprisonment, he should have the right to view his PSR well in advance of the day of his hearing for his sentencing. Did you not have any idea he hadn't seen it before yesterday?"
Childers said a series of issues that arose at the jail had made it impossible for him to get in to see Waters.
"Here's the problem," Miller said, breaking in again. "I can't go forward with the hearing because what Mr. Waters is facing is too much for me to sentence him knowing he has not seen his PSR until yesterday."
With that, Miller stood up and strode out of the courtroom with no further comment as Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kristin Bryant and Allison Bragg -- who are prosecuting Waters -- and other courtroom officials, including Waters' U.S. marshal escort team, looked around in confusion for several minutes. Finally, after about five minutes, the U.S. probation officer assigned to Waters' case left the courtroom and the escort team led Waters back through a connecting hallway to the courtroom's holding cell to prepare for his return to Jefferson County. Then, slowly, the attorneys and other courtroom officials drifted out of the courtroom and down the hallway.
As of Friday afternoon, according to the court's calendar, a new sentencing hearing for Waters had not been scheduled.