ACLU: Mississippi county fails to indict inmates

AP News
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Posted: Sep 24, 2014 4:42 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi county has illegally held inmates in jail for as long as a year without appointing counsel or presenting cases to a grand jury, the American Civil Liberties Union argues in a lawsuit, and a law professor said Wednesday that something similar could be happening elsewhere in the state.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, against officials in Scott County on behalf of inmates Octavious Burks and Joshua Bassett. Telephone calls to District Attorney Mark Duncan and Sheriff Mike Lee from the Associated Press seeking comment were not immediately returned Wednesday.

Court records show Burks has been in the Scott County Jail since Nov. 18, 2013, and Bassett since Jan. 16, 2014. Neither has been indicted.

"The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges," Brandon Buskey, staff attorney at the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a news release. "Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight."

Matt Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Mississippi, said Wednesday that the lawsuit reveals an inconsistency in a court system that has no public defender.

"This is usually a problem when a defendant has no one to push their case to the attention of a judge," he said. "Clients without lawyers find their cases move slower, they are less likely to get bail or bail is higher."

Steffey said many counties and court districts in Mississippi are without public defenders.

"It creates a situation where a person languishes in jail without a lawyer. And in some places, there's the lack of a mechanism for keeping track of those in jail."

The ACLU said Mississippi law does not limit how much time a district attorney has to present a felony case to the grand jury for indictment, or how long a felony defendant may be held in jail without a valid indictment.

The group argues an indigent defendant detained on a felony charge could spend an indefinite amount of time in jail before indictment.

The ACLU charges that because an initial appearance is a critical stage of criminal prosecution in Mississippi, defendants should be entitled to legal counsel under the U.S. Constitution.

Burks is charged with attempted armed robbery, possession of a weapon by a felon, disorderly conduct and possession of paraphernalia. Burks' bond is $30,000. The ACLU said since 2009, Burks has been jailed in Scott County on three separate charges without indictment or counsel.

Bond for Bassett, charged with grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine, is $100,000.

The ACLU argues other inmates face similar situations in Scott County.

The ACLU is seeking the release of prisoners who haven't had an attorney appointed within one week after their initial court appearances and those who remain unindicted 21 days after their arrests. ACLU also wants the court to order the district attorney and sheriff to adopt policies and procedures to monitor unindicted felony cases.