Judge finds no evidence Jackson County sheriff intimidated witnesses

Judge finds no evidence Jackson County sheriff intimidated witnesses

calee@sunherald.comOctober 14, 2013 

PASCAGOULA -- Circuit Court Judge William Coleman denied a motion Monday to jail Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd, saying evidence did not show he had tried to intimidate witnesses or influence testimony in a criminal case against him.

Coleman's ruling came at the end of testimony from witnesses called by District Attorney Tony Lawrence. Lawrence had filed a motion asking Coleman to revoke Byrd's bond on criminal charges filed by a grand jury. A condition of Byrd's release prohibits him from contacting grand jury witnesses, directly or through third parties, to influence their testimony.

Byrd does not deny he talked to witnesses, or asked third parties to speak with them. His attorney, Joe Sam Owen, said the sheriff was simply trying to help with his defense.

Byrd was indicted Aug. 29 on 31 criminal charges, 29 of them felonies. The charges describe a sheriff who allegedly used his office to retaliate against perceived enemies, order deputies to raise money for personal causes, conceal an accidental shooting in the county narcotics task force office, pressure witnesses to testify falsely in grand jury cases, demand free lawn mower repair and punish a female deputy who rebuffed his sexual advances.

Lawrence said Byrd was once again using manpower in his office, on county time, to do his personal bidding by trying to influence witnesses in his criminal case.

"It's a pattern of intimidating behavior," Lawrence told the judge. "It doesn't look like much, but he's getting a point across to witnesses."

Owen accused Lawrence of making "reckless statements" in open court that could prejudice a jury against Byrd.

Lawrence called five witnesses Monday, while three deputies testified Sept. 20.

One witness, Mickey Powell, is the father of sheriff's Deputy Chad Powell, whom a colleague accidentally shot in the leg at the offices of the now-disbanded Jackson County Narcotics Task Force. Powell testified before the grand jury about the shooting, which Byrd is accused of attempting to conceal. Moss Point Police Chief Keith Davis brought the shooting to the task force board's attention.

Mickey Powell, a detective in the Sheriff's Department, said he got a visit from Byrd on Sept. 20. When the sheriff drove up, Powell was moving a mobile home onto his property.

"He said he wasn't doing good," Powell testified. "He said, 'They're trying to put me in jail.' He told me that I might be preaching his funeral, that he just couldn't go to jail."

The sheriff said he was told concrete, not a bullet, had hit Chad Powell in the leg. Byrd claimed he had been lied to about what happened. Byrd said he was not allowed to talk with Chad Powell about the situation, but maybe Mickey Powell could. Byrd had hired both the Powells because he knew Mickey Powell's uncle, the sheriff reminded Powell. Byrd said he loved the Powell family.

The mother-in-law of another grand jury witness, Sgt. Brad Lewis, also testified. Lewis had previously testified that the sheriff ordered him to put employees of a Mexican restaurant under surveillance because they refused his check for a campaign dinner. The restaurant did not accept checks.

The mother-in-law, Mary Wanda Smith, cleans the old county courthouse. She was nervous, she said, when Byrd saw her in the hall Sept. 13 and asked her to come with him to his office, something he had never done.

He wanted to walk the back way to his office, she said. Once inside, the sheriff closed the door, another first.

"He said he wanted to ask me if I would tell Sgt. Brad Lewis that he still loved him and he loved his family and there wasn't any hard feelings or anything." The sheriff then mentioned that a conversation between him and Lewis had been "misconstrued" in the media, she said. He thought she could let Lewis know.

A former deputy, J.D. Savage, testified that he got a call from a deputy on the sheriff's behalf because Byrd was looking for information to discredit Moss Point Chief Davis, another grand jury witness.

Lawrence told the judge he should not be fooled by all the "love" the sheriff expressed, or the hugs he offered. He asked Coleman to find Byrd in contempt of court, if the judge did not believe bond should be revoked, and give the sheriff some jail time.

Coleman noted that Byrd has chosen to remain in office while fighting the charges against him. As sheriff, the judge, said, he will have contact with employees. However, Coleman noted none of the conversations witnesses talked about proved that Byrd intimidated them or tried to influence grand jury testimony.

"I'm glad we're past this," Owen said after the hearing. "Now we can move to the real issue, and that's the indictment."

Staff Writer Christina Steube and Staff Photojournalist John Fitzhugh contributed to this report.

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