Jail freed fugitives while warrants sat
Writs locked in sheriff’s files, review finds
Posted: December 9, 2012 at 3:04 a.m.
HELENA-WEST HELENA Last in a series
Phillips County Sheriff Ronnie White and his staff routinely released inmates from the county jail even though they were wanted in violent or drug-related crimes, records show.
Many of the fugitives were jailed and released numerous times when they should have been detained and forced to show up at their next court appearances, jail and court records show.
They make up about a quarter of 101 Phillips County fugitives wanted in the most serious of felony cases, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation found.
The fugitives include men such as Marcus Lockhart, who beginning in late 2007 served 74 straight days in the Phillips County jail for not paying his child support.
Throughout Lockhart’s time in the jail, a fugitive warrant for his arrest in a cocaine-distribution case sat in a filing cabinet just a few hundred feet away in the Phillips County sheriff’s office.
Lockhart’s case was dropped last summer because that warrant was never served.
Once other fugitives were freed, several went on to commit new crimes.
Some illegally bought firearms. Others remained in Phillips County, where they accumulated more criminal charges.
Still others, jail records show, were released from the county jail and extradited to out-of-state law enforcement agencies to face less-severe charges than the ones pending in Phillips County.
Last spring, a Democrat-Gazette investigation revealed that White’s office didn’t enter hundreds of fugitive warrants into state and national crime databases. Law-enforcement officers use those databases to see if someone has an outstanding warrant.
Because the databases were incomplete, officers missed more than 220 opportunities to arrest fugitives facing the state’s worst level of felonies because they had no way of knowing about the warrants.
But the newspaper’s latest findings show that the man who had the warrants in a filing cabinet in his office didn’t even serve them in his own jail.
Reached by phone Tuesday, White declined to discuss the newspaper’s findings. The sheriff, who leaves office at the end of the year, also declined to discuss cases in which inmates facing serious charges were extradited to other states.
“I have no comment to make,” White said repeatedly before hanging up.
The sheriff also did not respond to a written list of questions.
FUGITIVES IN JAIL
Fugitive or failure-to-appear warrants are a routine, but important, part of the criminal justice system. They say to a defendant: You must show up to face your charge, and if you don’t, the police or sheriff will make you.
When those warrants are disregarded, the rest of the court system gets backed up, and at times fails, the newspaper found.
Last spring, White assured reporters that his office never had problems with warrants disappearing. Each warrant was delivered by a deputy from the court, and the documents were arranged alphabetically in a filing cabinet in the sheriff’s office.
If the office received a warrant and knew it was active, deputies would arrest the person named in the warrant and hold him until the next court term, White told the newspaper.
But in the same interview, White and Chief Deputy David Lawman said their office didn’t operate 24 hours a day. And after business hours, jailers don’t have access to the warrants in the sheriff’s office.
“Nobody in that jail has access to the sheriff’s office other than the deputy who’s out patrolling. He’s got a key,” White said.
Lawman also noted that jailers “do not have access to these warrants.”
The sheriff’s office tried to work out a system to serve the warrants but never succeeded, White said at the time. He also noted that he didn’t think his office was properly informed when judges set aside fugitive warrants, though court officials have disputed that.
In November — six months after the newspaper published articles about the county’s warrant problems — the sheriff said his office had begun entering fugitive warrant information into the law-enforcement database maintained by the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
Whether the sheriff has implemented a system to serve warrants in the jail after-hours is unknown. White didn’t respond to the newspaper’s questions about that.
But booking records indicate that warrants have not been served numerous times while fugitives were held in the jail.
After examining the records of fugitives in Class Y felony cases — which carry the state’s longest prison sentences of 10 years to life — the Democrat-Gazette confirmed that 24 of 101 defendants were jailed and released without warrants being served.
In total, those defendants were jailed at least 60 times while they had outstanding warrants.
The percentage grows when fugitives whom police had opportunities to arrest during traffic stops, court appearances or misdemeanor arrests are added to those fugitives who were jailed and released.
In total, more than 40 percent of the Class Y fugitive defendants weren’t arrested on their warrants when lawenforcement officials had opportunities to do so, court and jail records show.
The newspaper tracked the defendants who were listed as fugitives before judicial officials — in response to articles printed about the cases — took action to pare down the circuit court fugitive docket.
The newspaper’s latest findings are based on thousands of pages of court and prison records from three states, as well as nearly a decade’s worth of booking papers stored at the Phillips County jail.
Among the documents were records of inmates released despite having outstanding warrants.
For example, James Chairse, 27, is accused in court records of hitting a Schwan’s deliveryman over the head and stealing the man’s wallet and the company’s money. He also is accused in another case of pointing a gun and threatening to kill a mother and son.
Chairse has twice been arrested and booked into the county jail on other warrants and a lesser drug charge. But during his time there, no one served him with either of the fugitive warrants issued in those cases.
He remains wanted.
In other instances, the sheriff’s failure to serve warrants in the jail has delayed cases and sown confusion as to who is truly a fugitive.
Some county jail inmates have been declared fugitives after they didn’t appear at the Phillips County Courthouse for their hearings — even though they were incarcerated just one building away.
For example, Helena-West Helena police arrested Adrian Matthews on charges of aggravated robbery and theft in January 2010. More than a year later, jail records indicate, Matthews remained incarcerated.
But when his case was called for trial on Feb. 16, 2011, he didn’t appear, court records show.
A judge issued a fugitive warrant for him.
The sheriff ’s office received the warrant two days later, court records show.
A month later, White released Matthews, but the warrant remained unserved.
Over the next two years, Matthews was jailed five more times after arrests that included charges of attempted murder and aggravated robbery, jail records show. Outside the jail, authorities also had six opportunities to arrest Matthews on the 2011 warrant, but it wasn’t served until June 7 of this year.
By then Matthews had also been charged in another case from this year. He faces charges of aggravated residential burglary, first-degree battery and theft. He is accused of shooting a man twice in the face and taking the man’s Chevrolet Blazer, according to charging documents.
In other instances, defendants with multiple cases have been sentenced for some of their crimes, but are still considered fugitives in other pending cases.
Violet Bennett, 54, first became a fugitive in a drug case in January 2001.
In 2004, prosecutors filed another drug-related felony charge against her, only to drop it the following year.
In 2007, Bennett picked up yet another felony drug charge and was once again declared a fugitive.
While under a judge’s order to be arrested in the 2001 and the 2007 cases, Bennett was charged with first-degree battery, to which she pleaded guilty for stabbing a man.
She was even sentenced in that case — 60 months of probation with two years supervised, as well as nine days of jail time credit — but warrants remained outstanding.
During her time as a fugitive, Bennett posted bail for a man in the Phillips County jail, signing a $100,000 surety bond to secure his release.
Lawman, the chief deputy, approved the surety bond.
Bennett remains a fugitive, as does Shalamar Sims, who was declared a fugitive while in the Phillips County jail in 2009.
Sims went on to serve prison time that included more than two years in the Phillips County jail awaiting space in an Arkansas Department of Correction facility. Even when he was booked into a state prison in June 2011, the Department of Correction wasn’t aware of his fugitive warrant because it wasn’t entered into the Arkansas Crime Information Center database, state officials say.
Five months later, on Nov. 21, Sims again showed up in the Phillips County jail and was released. His 2009 case remains listed on the court’s fugitive docket.
So are the cases of two men imprisoned in other states.
Markel Geeter and Calvin Franklin were turned over to out-of-state authorities even though warrants for their arrests sat in the files in White’s office.
In both cases, the men faced more serious charges in Phillips County than the ones for which they were extradited.
In Geeter’s case, there’s another wrinkle.
He was booked into the Phillips County jail on Oct. 27, 2010, and released the same day per White’s authority, jail records show.
At the time, Geeter was wanted in Phillips County and Louisiana for failing to appear in his court cases.
In Phillips County, he faced four drug charges, including possession with intent to deliver cocaine.
In Louisiana, he was charged with possession of cocaine.
After being jailed and released once more, Geeter was arrested by Helena-West Helena police. Court records indicate that officers checked his background through both the Arkansas and national crime databases.
That’s when the police learned of the Louisiana warrant and booked Geeter into the Phillips County jail.
He sat there for a few weeks before waiving extradition to Louisiana in a hearing before a district judge, records obtained from the Louisiana secretary of state’s office show.
Phillips County jail records show that he was transferred to Louisiana on Aug. 17, 2011. But when he was extradited, his Phillips County warrant wasn’t served.
And Louisiana court records show that he began appearing in court in his cocaine-possession case and was later convicted.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections, in whose custody Geeter has been for more than a year serving his five-year sentence, has no record of his outstanding warrant, and there has been no request for him to be detained for the Phillips County sheriff’s office to face his four pending Arkansas drug charges, said Pam Laborde, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
Like its counterpart in Arkansas, the Louisiana prison system relies on the National Crime Information Center’s database — and on other agencies to enter information into that database — to alert them when one of their inmates has outstanding warrants.
They also rely on the law enforcement agency with pending charges to notify them.
The same is true in Texas, said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prison system.
“If they’ve not entered it into NCIC or they’ve not made contact with us and sent us the appropriate detainer paperwork, then we’re not going to know that that individual has outstanding charges or is wanted by another agency,” Clark said.
Clark’s agency has no record of an outstanding warrant for Calvin Franklin, who has served three prison sentences in Texas while being wanted by Phillips County.
Franklin is incarcerated in the Bartlett Unit of the Texas prison system — yet he’s still listed as a fugitive in his Phillips County Class Y felony drug case from 1995, one of the oldest outstanding fugitive cases listed in Phillips County court records.
Since he became a fugitive in October 2000, Franklin has been jailed 19 times in Taylor County, Texas, alone.
Taylor County sheriff ’s spokesman Sgt. John Cummins said Franklin’s case history doesn’t give any indication that Phillips County placed a detainer on him in any earlier arrest.
That includes Franklin’s last booking in the Taylor County jail, which was the result of being extradited from Phillips County, Cummins said.
The Phillips County sheriff’s office approved Franklin’s release to Texas to face a felony theft charge, disregarding the more serious Class Y drug felony filed in Arkansas.
“Other than frustration, there’s really not anything we can do about it,” Cummins said.
Franklin is scheduled to be released in early 2014, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.
He remains listed as a fugitive in Phillips County.
While White declined to comment on the newspaper’s latest findings, other 1st Judicial District officials said they were unaware that fugitives had been in the jail but not been served with outstanding warrants.
“It troubles me,” 1st Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Fletcher Long said, adding that he also wasn’t aware of the sheriff’s failure to enter warrants into the Arkansas crime database until the newspaper published articles about it last spring.
Asked if he would open an investigation into the sheriff’s practices or consider charges of abuse of office, Long said: “There has been contact made with a higher judicial authority about what authority local judges may have to compel a sheriff to enter fugitive warrants. That is a topic for discussion in the presence of higher authorities than me.”
Circuit Judge Richard Proctor, who in May ordered White to begin entering warrants into the Arkansas crime database, declined to comment because the cases involving the fugitives may come before him at a later time.
Circuit Judge L.T. Simes said that, while he wasn’t aware that jail inmates weren’t served outstanding warrants, he has long suspected that the court’s backlog stemmed from problems at the sheriff’s office and jail.
“Those issues were why I asked for a criminal-case coordinator, so I could be more attuned to what was going on,” Simes said.
A criminal-case coordinator serves as a liaison between the court system and law-enforcement agencies.
Simes asked for a coordinator last year, but the Phillips County Quorum Court rejected his proposal.
In the meantime, the judges have made dramatic progress in resolving hundreds of old cases, Simes said.
They did so by holding a special summer term and putting pressure on the prosecutor and defense attorneys to address the oldest cases. Simes said the work has cut the docket dramatically.
“I mean, my God — now I can give more individual time and attention to cases. We have time to take a recess and get to this and that,” he said.
The difficulty in the current situation is that, even though he’s certain that the sheriff’s office and jail practices have been, and in some cases continue to be, the crux of the court system’s dysfunction, Simes doesn’t feel that it’s his place to tell a sheriff how to do his job, he said.
“Even if there’s some issue with the person, that office is still a separate, constitutional office,” Simes explained. “It’s his office. I shouldn’t be interfering with his office. I just simply wanted a case coordinator to organize it.”
Simes and other judges in the 1st Judicial District are still waiting to hear from the Arkansas Supreme Court on whether they have the discretion to order a sheriff to do something.
“What we have done is said, ‘Tell us what authority we have to address this situation,’” Simes said. “This man has his own independent office. You could hold him in contempt, but that doesn’t solve the problem.”
Front Section, Pages 1 on 12/09/2012