INDICTING JUDGES FOR VIOLATING CIVIL RIGHTS?

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The case against Mississippi Judge Marcus D. Gordon as defined in this New York Times piece is a damning one if true. Gordon, according to an interview reported in Aljazeera America, says it is his personal policy that indigent defendants wait until after they have been indicted before they can see a public defender. This results, in some cases, with a defendant having to wait in a dismal jail for over a year before they are permitted to talk with a lawyer. This hardened policy is in effect regardless of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. In one case, according to Aljazeera, a suspect named Willie Nicks waited 14 months and then his case was dropped. When asked by the reporter whether he thought these people’s rights are being violated, the judge responded, “Lady, the criminal system is a system of criminals. Sure, their rights are violated. But not all rights are violated that you’re calling violation[s]”.

Based on these articles, it seems clear that the judge has an antipathetic bent towards any poor person even charged with a crime in his four-county jurisdiction. If the police arrest someone, that seems good enough to justify holding them in jail with a large and unaffordable bail without the benefit of counsel– at least until someone gets around to indicting the poor soul, or the charges are dropped. When asked whether court-appointed attorneys don’t have enough time to represent such people, the judge dismissively responded, “Most defendants are con people” and public defenders are overworked (and, therefore, unable to meet with these unfortunates) because of the number of “ridiculous crimes they commit”.

The New York Times rightfully published the above guest editorial wherein the author stated:

There are many words to describe the judge’s blunt disregard of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Callous. Appalling. Cruel. Here’s another possibility: criminal — liable to prosecution and, if found guilty, prison time.

Federal law already provides a mechanism to prosecute judges and district attorneys as criminals when they willfully deprive people of their civil rights: Title 18, Section 242, of the federal code.

This is not the first time the NY Times and others have taken issue with Gordon’s troublesome antics. In October of 2010, Op-Ed columnist, Bob Herbert wrote about the “draconian” sentences Gordon handed down to two black girls (biological sisters) for an approximate $11 robbery that allegedly occurred on Christmas Eve in 1993– he gave them each double life terms to be run consecutively. Herbert wrote, “This is Mississippi we’re talking about, a place that in many ways has not advanced much beyond the Middle Ages”. At the time, Ben Jealous, then President of the NAACP, said, “It makes you sick to think that this sort of thing can happen. That these women should be kept in prison until they die– well, that’s just so utterly inhumane”. Fortunately, the NAACP prevailed in their efforts, and the sisters were released after spending many years in prison.

In a civil Complaint levied against Gordon and others, the plaintiffs, allege among other things, violations of the right to counsel and deprivation of the right to reasonable bails. In one case cited in the Complaint, reference is made to a Mr. Octavious Burks, who was arrested for attempted armed robbery, possession of a weapon by a felon, disorderly conduct, and possession of paraphernalia. The presiding judge (Bill Freeman) set bail at $30,000 without any findings as to Burk’s ability to pay, or as to any possible cash bail alternatives. Burks was remanded to jail where he was held for over ten months (at the time of the lawsuit). He was not afforded legal counsel due to Gordon’s aforementioned no-lawyer-until-indicted policy. Burks has been detained on other occasions, and each time remanded to jail without the formal appointment of legal counsel because he was not indicted in all but one case. He has never been to trial or convicted in these cases, yet he has spent over three years in the slammer. The suit goes on to allege that other similarly situated defendants in this class action lawsuit were wrongfully aggrieved by the three judges in the circuit, the District Attorney and the Sheriff in a similar fashion. We assume that the defendants have denied the allegations.

If the allegations in the Complaint, and writings in the above-mentioned articles, turn out to be true, the Justice Department should move swiftly to explore whether to indict the defendants– without the type of delay Gordon and the others seemingly permit.

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