Randy Walker spent 106 days in a Hinds County jail on a firearm charge, but he was never convicted of the crime. He was never indicted in the first place.
Walker was first arrested and charged with possession of a stolen firearm in August 2014. He bonded out but was arrested again on the same charge eight months later.
While serving time in Raymond Detention Center, he wrote pleading letters to Senior Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green and then Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn. With each letter, Walker pointed out that he had never been indicted.
He had plenty of company in that regard.
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During a three-month investigation, The Clarion-Ledger found that almost one in five Hinds County inmates spends long periods of time in jail before their charges are presented to a grand jury for indictment.
The jail roster for a single “snapshot” day in August showed 18 percent of inmates — 139 in all — were not indicted within three months of their arrests. This roster listed those incarcerated in Hinds County's three jails, including Raymond Detention Center, where most inmates reside. Of those 139 inmates, 60 still have not been indicted, despite spending months, a year or longer in jail. Some of the inmates from this group were released from jail for lack of indictment during the course of this project.
Walker had a public defender, but months after his arrest, the only information he’d heard on his case was from a corrections officer, who told him he would have to stay in jail until he was indicted. He’d been to court once, but that was to get a $25,000 bond that he couldn’t afford. In one of his letters, he said it felt like his life was being thrown away.
“It’s like I’m just doing dead time,” he wrote. “My family is struggling and needs my help.”
He asked Dunn to see a judge. He’d reached a breaking point, saying he couldn’t take it in the jail any longer and he feared for his life. If he got out, he wouldn’t come back.
“I am especially trying to get out of this facility because gang members have control of these zones,” he wrote. “Telling us who are not, what we can and can’t do. Can you please help me any type of way you can?”
A year after he was initially charged and 106 days after his arrest, Walker was released from jail on his own recognizance. He’d written at least six letters to Green and three letters to Dunn. Hinds County records show he has never been indicted on the firearm charge or any other felony.
Hitting a dead end
In January, Michael Bradley was arrested for possession of crystal meth, but nine months later he has not been indicted. He can’t afford his $5,000 bond.
In May, his public defender filed a writ of habeas corpus, a court record that alleges unlawful imprisonment, arguing Bradley is indigent and can’t afford his bond. The attorney asked the judge to lower the bond to $1,000. Two months later, County Court Judge Melvin Priester denied both the bond reduction and the request to release Bradley on his own recognizance.
In August, Bradley’s attorney filed another writ of habeas corpus, emphasizing that Bradley had been held 195 days without indictment, that the grand jury had met at least four times without indicting him and that “such detention is an illegal deprivation of Mr. Bradley’s liberty.”
A hearing was held before Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd 18 days later. He hasn’t filed anything in response to the writ, and Bradley remains in jail.
“All he said was that he would look over my case,” Bradley said in a letter to The Clarion-Ledger. “That’s been a month and a half with no response. As far as my public defender, Lynn Watkins, she seems to be really trying to get my case handled, but the system is just so slow.”
After the hearing before Kidd, Bradley said his case was assigned to another public defender, Greg Spore, whom he has not met about his case.
Last November, Pierre Martise Harris was arrested, accused of shooting into an occupied vehicle while on parole. For almost a year, he’s been serving time in Raymond Detention Center — but he’s never been indicted for the crime.
“I’ve been taken away from my family,” he said in a letter to The Clarion-Ledger. “During these months, I’ve lost loved ones. It’s been difficult.”
Harris, now 30, has been in and out of prison since he was 19, when he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. He was arrested last year on his latest charge, and lost his job working construction at the Wesson Hotel in downtown Jackson. His bond was set at $150,000.
Before his arrest, Harris visited his mother, Senora Smith, to tell her a woman had pressed charges on him and five other men for shooting into her vehicle from two different cars.
“He’s just missed out on a lot – a lot of life,” Smith said.
Does anybody care?
Most of the 139 inmates whose cases The Clarion-Ledger reviewed in its investigation are young and black. Those who received a bond can’t afford to pay it, and the majority can’t afford a private attorney, either, meaning their case is in the hands of public defenders who represent hundreds of other clients.
Those who work in law enforcement and the Hinds County court system were quick to point out that the data could include inmates whose indictments remain under seal or whose cases don’t appear in online court records because of filing glitches.
But the group of 79 inmates who were indicted after three months of incarceration provide a glimpse into how long it takes to be indicted in Hinds County. On average, those inmates waited more than five months in custody for indictment, and several waited a year or longer.
In the last year, a class action lawsuit against Jackson Municipal Court addressed Hinds County jail inmates who spent long periods in jail on minor offenses, such as failing to pay traffic tickets. In June, the county reached a settlement with the Department of Justice related to conditions at the jail. But both efforts didn’t address the often staggering amount of time inmates spend incarcerated before they’re indicted – and that some are released and never indicted.
In addition to the 139 inmates identified during this story, Green’s administrative file shows she ordered at least nine inmates to be released on their own recognizance during the last few years for lack of indictment. She also reduced the bonds for at least 12 inmates who had served long periods without being indicted.
The amount of time they spent in jail ranges from about three months to more than a year. Ivory Robinson, who could not be reached for comment, spent 467 days in jail on burglary charges for which he has never been indicted.
In 2014, a riot in Hinds County Detention Center left one dead and five injured. The violence was considered a symptom of a jail that has become notorious for its abysmal conditions.
Sen. John Hohrn, D-Jackson, championed a $10 million legislative package to fight crime in Hinds County several years ago, and the strategy passed through the Legislature with just a study of Hinds County Circuit Court and Jackson Public Schools intact.
The inmate who began the riot had been awaiting indictment for almost a year and a half, state Sen. John Hohrn, D-Jackson, said.
“It gives the appearance of inefficiencies and a lack of attention to the task at hand,” he said of the problem. “That’s the way it looks. The people who are assigned, whose job it is to handle this may say, ‘We have a justifiable reason for it,’ but I’ve yet to see anything that truly justifies it.”
The data on indictment delays follow turmoil in District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith’s office. Smith and Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride face felony charges of hindering a criminal defendant’s prosecution, and former Assistant District Attorney Ivon Johnson pleaded guilty to conspiracy in July.
Smith didn’t describe the slow pace to indictments as a problem. He wasn’t surprised that 18 percent of inmates remained unindicted after spending at least three months in jail, adding, “It’s much better than it being 50 percent.”
In a perfect world, law enforcement would forward a criminal investigation to the district attorney, who would present the case at the next scheduled grand jury session. Somewhere, this process hits a snag in Hinds County. A federal study from 2009 showed that on average, 85 percent of felony cases in the United States are adjudicated within a year from arrest. That figure suggests indictments take place soon after a defendant’s arrest, or within a year, at the very least.
“We can present the case when it becomes available, when it’s completed,” Smith said. “There are times when the case may not come over … but it’s certainly up to the attorney to inform us about whether or not someone has been in custody for an unreasonable amount of time with no charges.”
The leadership of Jackson Police Department’s detective bureau also did not describe the lag time for indictments as a problem or express frustration. They say they have a good working relationship with the district attorney’s office.
“We’ve had more successes with the presentation and prosecution of cases than what others may consider failures,” Deputy Chief Amy Barlow said. “So, we can’t just paint it with a broad stroke and say, ‘Oh, just because of the publicity that the DA’s office is getting that this is a problem.’ That’s just not the case.”
When asked if it’s acceptable for an inmate to receive an indictment six months to a year into his or her arrest, Barlow said, “It’s not going to benefit us to point fingers and say, ‘Y’all need to do this,’ or, ‘You need to do that,’ or ‘You need to do this.’ What we need to do is everything we can to give them what they need for successful prosecution and make sure we have a complete investigation when we send it over there.”
Cmdr. Tyree Jones went further, saying: “Let me clear this up for you, OK? Let’s clear that air now. It’s not an issue. … It’s just not. … We’re sending good work over, and in return, we’re getting success in getting individuals indicted.”
Jones said his department had no complaints regarding indictments. Court records show, however, that the department previously referred cases to the FBI that they felt weren’t being properly prosecuted because the defendants had a connection to Smith. The district attorney has disputed those claims.
Hinds County Public Defender Michele Purvis Harris also questioned the lag time between arrest and indictment.
“There’s something wrong,” she said. “It shouldn’t take this long.”
What’s behind the indictment delay?
The Clarion-Ledger received no simple explanations for the delay in indictments. When asked why it is taking so long, Green, Harris and Barlow referred the question to the district attorney.
“I cannot answer you definitively without looking at that list, because it certainly could be another agency’s case,” Smith said.
Blake Feldman, advocacy coordinator for criminal justice reform at the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, argued the district attorney must be aware of the situation.
“It’s important to note that the local prosecutors do have all the power,” he said. “Their defense attorneys are playing defense. … The cards are so stacked against the defendant that at least with that has to come the accountability to bring people to trial in an efficient timeframe, but also in a timeframe that respects everybody’s rights and human dignity.”
Factors outside of the district attorney’s office may play a role.
Jackson Police Department Cmdr. Steve McDonald, who presides over narcotics investigations, said occasionally lab work, such as bloodwork or clothing analysis, must be sent to the state Crime Lab. Waiting on the analysis to return can create delays.
But no one appears to have the authority or responsibility to monitor the progress of criminal cases and the court system as a whole. Law enforcement generally doesn’t track cases after they’re forwarded to the district attorney’s office. And it looks as though no one, from the judges to prosecutors to law enforcement and jail staff, consistently tracks how long inmates have spent in jail without being indicted.
“When I talk to folks in law enforcement or in the judicial system, they are quick to point out, ‘Look, I did my job,’” Hohrn said. “’You know, I got it to this point. I did what I was supposed to do, and what happens after that is, that’s not in my lane. I’m staying in my lane.’”
As other possible causes, prisoners’ rights attorney Ron Welch referred to a lack of oversight and no centralized computer system that would help judges and prosecutors track the situation.
At the same time, the system as a whole is overburdened and underfunded. Public defenders assigned to cases where a defendant has not been indicted have hundreds of clients.
“That’s an outrage,” Welch said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
In the public defender’s office, eight attorneys are assigned to clients who have been indicted, with an average of 100 to 130 cases.
But the three public defenders assigned to clients who have not been indicted have the heaviest caseloads. Each is responsible for about 400 clients.
“Frankly, every day in city court, there is going to be someone there arrested and charged with a felony, so that means we’re going to pick up another client,” Michele Purvis Harris said. “It’s a never-ending cycle that comes to trying to make sure that we deal with those cases.”
On the district attorney’s end, his office has 12 prosecutors and an issue with turnover, as about 20 employees have left since 2014.
In 2013, Green issued an order outlining policies geared to keep the number of Hinds County inmates to a minimum. But just three years later, it appears that some of the safeguards put in place have fallen out of use.
Green’s order specifically deals with inmates who are charged with felonies and haven’t been indicted within 90 days of their arrest. Under the order, if those inmates were denied bond or can’t afford it, their case must be presented to a grand jury within 90 days of their arrest.
If the prosecutor doesn’t present that case to the grand jury, then he or she has to appear at a bond review hearing before Green to make an argument as to why the inmate should remain in custody without being indicted.
Green’s order also took an important step forward by creating a system that would notify both the court and prosecutors when inmates were serving extended periods of time without being indicted. The order required the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department to provide Green and the district attorney with a list of inmates who had spent more than 90 days in jail without an indictment.
It’s not clear if they still receive this list, and Smith and Green’s answers suggest that it’s been months at least since they last received it.
Sheriff Victor Mason wasn’t present in his office for a scheduled interview and didn’t return repeated calls seeking comment. Green provided a list of unindicted inmates she received in January, adding the person who had sent it to her has since moved to Georgia. She didn’t answer whether or not this was the last time she received the list.
Smith said he was unaware of his office ever receiving the list.
In general, Green and Smith discussed her order in the past tense – as though its sole purpose was to address problems unique to the jail when it was issued, but that it’s no longer strictly followed.
“During that time, that was a situation where the jail crisis caused several individuals to try to institute a plan to move and expedite inmates’ cases,” Smith said. “I’m not saying that is not a plan that should be instituted all the time, but we move as quickly as we can. We do not like to rush an investigation if our detectives are not prepared to go forward or (if) they’re waiting on forensic evidence, for example.”
Harris said the order has helped but not resolved the problem.
“In a lot of cases, once that person gets their name on that list and they’re presented to the judge, they’re indicted within the next couple of days,” she said. “And then there are those who still just kind of end up sitting, and that’s where we come in with that habeas and those kind of things.”
Before a defense attorney pursues a writ of habeas corpus, another option is to seek a bond review. The goal is to get a hearing, during which a judge could potentially assign a defendant a new, more affordable bond. Andres Wallace, a former Hinds County assistant public defender, pursued that option with mixed results.
“We’ll file a motion for a bond review, but that’s essentially us telling them, ‘Here’s our guy. Indict him.’” He said. “I feel like what we file is simply a reminder.”
Every two weeks, Wallace said he printed out a list of all his office’s clients, identified which were his and determined who was in jail but hadn’t been indicted. His priority was to find clients who had been in jail for a year without being indicted.
“I also have to juggle my calls,” he said. “I also have to juggle going to see clients, going to interview witnesses with my investigator, so I have a lot of that stuff to do. So, it’s like, when do I get a time to come in and file that writ?”
During his tenure with the Hinds County Public Defender’s Office, he had never finished going through a single list.