Stone County Circuit Clerk Jeffrey O’Neal’s voice trembled as he stood Tuesday before all four judges, who wanted to know why they shouldn’t hold him in contempt of court for failing to do his job.
Court personnel said they could not remember a time when all four of the judges — Senior Judge Roger Clark, Christopher Schmidt, Lisa Dodson and Larry Bourgeois — took the bench together. They were considering the contempt charge because O’Neal’s office failed to file sentencing, probation and commitment orders in at least 36 criminal cases the judges have decided.
Without those records, the system of justice can’t function properly. O’Neal has violated state law by failing to file the orders, Clark told him.
“I’m guilty, your honor,” said O’Neal, who sounded like he was near tears. “This was my responsibility to see that this was done and it was not done.”
Dodson told O’Neal, “It’s just creating havoc all the way down the line.”
For example, she said, state inmates are sitting in county jail at the county’s expense because the Mississippi Department of Corrections does not know they are there. Once an inmate is sentenced, the circuit clerk prepares commitment papers MDOC uses to put the inmate into the state prison system.
O’Neal wheeled into court a cart holding the case files. He said his office is working to catch up on the paperwork.
Clark credited former deputy clerk June O’Neal with bringing the files up to date. Jeffrey O’Neal said he is still working to get the orders and other paperwork entered in the electronic court system, and that he and his staff need more training on electronic record-keeping.
The judges left the courtroom to confer, then returned and told O’Neal that they would defer a decision on the contempt charge, giving him a chance to finish catching up on all the case files. He must file a report with the court on Nov. 22 and is scheduled to appear before the judges again at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 13.
After court, O’Neal told the Sun Herald that he was for a time without any deputy clerks. Three senior clerks, including June O’Neal, had left their jobs. June O’Neal, who is not related to the circuit clerk, returned about two months ago, he said, to help him get caught up.
He is up for re-election Nov. 5. His opponent in the race, Treba Parker Davis, sat in the back of the courtroom with Kenny Hatten, the circuit clerk from 1992-2015. Davis served as a deputy circuit clerk under Hatten.
O’Neal was last in court in June, when he appeared before Judge Christopher Schmidt, also to show why he should not be held in contempt.
State Auditor Shad White filed the earlier case because O’Neal had failed to submit annual reports showing fees collected and expenses paid by his office. O’Neal agreed to catch up on the reports, which are required by law, and was not charged with contempt in that case either.