JACKSON, Miss. — A federal judge is again calling officials from a Mississippi county before him to ask why inmates are languishing in the county jail without bail or trial.
The Monday hearing before U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves was the second time Reeves had taken up claims from inmates held in the Lauderdale County jail in Meridian.
The county of 80,000 people is just one of Mississippi’s jurisdictions under scrutiny for holding people on bail they can’t afford, or not providing them a lawyer, or not moving fast enough to trial.
Leroy Lewis, who was arrested in December 2014 and indicted on a murder charge in March 2015, said he’s been seeking trial for more than a year.
Assistant Attorney General Jerrolyn Owens told the judge that the defense is to blame for some delays and that Lewis is scheduled for trial next month.
Jarvis Hampton, who’s jailed on a drug charge, accused Lauderdale County of speedy trial violations as well as violating his civil rights. The judge indicated Monday that he’s likely to split those claims into two or three separate lawsuits.
Lewis asked that he be let out of jail and that the indictment against him be dismissed. Owens told Reeves that he didn’t have the power to dismiss the indictment, and said Lewis’ demand to be released from jail should be rejected. Instead, she said he needed to formally demand a speedy trial in state court. However, with a trial scheduled only weeks away, she indicated such a legal demand would be basically pointless.
The judge is expected to rule on Lewis’ request later. But Lewis is ineligible for bail under Mississippi law because he’s been indicted for assaulting a prison guard since he was jailed. Anyone who’s indicted for a second felony while still accused of a first felony is required to be held without bail.
Reeves spent two hours dissecting Lewis’s case. Owens and Lauderdale County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Bittick said that despite Lewis’ claims to Reeves, Lewis and his defense lawyers have sought multiple delays in Lewis’ trial.
Reeves is considering a number of petitions from Lauderdale County prisoners complaining about their detentions. Bittick said authorities believe Lewis and other inmates are “trying to have it both ways,” complaining about slow trials in federal court but doing nothing in the state court system to speed up their trials.
Reeves, though, suggested that prosecutors and other people should do more to bring inmates to trial.
“Does an inmate have any obligation to bring himself to trial?” Reeves said.
More broadly, though, Lauderdale County is another Mississippi county where a series of issues including a rickety public defender system, delays in gathering evidence from an overworked state crime lab and high bails can conspire to keep people in jail before trial for months or years. A list provided by the sheriff’s department showed that as of Jan. 8, the county had 113 inmates in custody more than 90 days who hadn’t gone to trial.
Civil liberties advocates have brought lawsuits against a number of jurisdictions, including a four-county judicial circuit next door to Lauderdale County.
Lee Thaggard, who represents the county, deferred comment to District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell when asked to comment about inmates who languish without trial. Mitchell didn’t immediately return a phone call and an email seeking comment.