Miss. accused do time for years with no indictment for a crime
Octavious Burks has been in the Scott County Jail since Nov. 18, 2013. Joshua Bassett has been there since Jan. 16, 2014.A grand jury has yet to indict either man.
They are far from alone. In jails across the state, some are held behind bars more than a year without ever being indicted.
“This is another poor man’s curse in Mississippi,” said J. Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “It sounds like something that happens in a Third World country.”
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the MacArthur Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of these men against Scott County officials, saying the men have been “indefinitely denied counsel.”
These are far from isolated incidents, said State Defender Leslie Lee. “Nobody is advocating for these people. Nobody is investigating these cases.”
Mississippi is the only state in the Southeast without a statewide public defender system and one of only seven states in the U.S. without such a system.
“There are so many crucial things a lawyer needs to be doing, way before indictment,” Lee said.
But under Mississippi law, a lawyer isn’t appointed for an indigent defendant until that person has been arraigned on a grand jury indictment.
Under the current system, “our office has no jurisdiction over county public defenders, other than educating them,” Lee said. “We have really upped our training, but our problem is it’s not mandatory.”
With a public defender’s system, she said a public defender in each county could monitor the list of those being held in jail and make sure no one falls between the cracks.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans rebuilt its public defender system, making it possible for a lawyer to represent a defendant after arrest, she said.
This hardly needs comment.
It’s bad policy even from a law-enforcement perspective. If you wait a year to indict someone (and even longer to trial) the victim may drop the complaint, witnesses may become unavailable, evidence lost resulting in fewer convictions or better (for the defendant) plea deals.