LITTLE ROCK -- Sparks flew at the federal courthouse in Little Rock on Friday as two defense attorneys found themselves in hot water with a federal judge for showing up late for back-to-back pretrial conferences and failing to adequately communicate with the court.
U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. grew even angrier when he learned that both attorneys -- Willard Proctor and Adam Childers -- intended to negotiate plea deals for their clients but had not informed him, although both were scheduled for trial within days. A hearing for Proctor's client was delayed nearly an hour, and although Childers said he had sent a message that morning that he would be absent, no one received it.
Part of Moody's consternation stemmed from having received no information as to the status of the two cases while the two criminal trials were scheduled just days away. Also, with both defendants in federal custody, arrangements would have to be made with an already overloaded U.S. Marshals Service to arrange additional transport in an already bulging court calendar.
The trouble began just after 10 a.m. as Moody prepared to get underway with a status conference for a scheduled trial involving Herbert Wilson, 62, of Tuckerman, who was federally indicted on two counts of possession of child pornography with intent to view, but his attorney, Proctor, was not in the courtroom. After several phone calls Moody reached Proctor, who had been held up at another hearing that morning, and ordered him to get to court. At 10:50, Proctor, a former Pulaski County Circuit Court judge, arrived and the hearing got underway as Moody, clearly irritated, lit into him.
"This case is set for trial roughly two weeks from today and I haven't heard anything from defense counsel on whether his client plans to change his plea or we're going to go to trial," Moody said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Bryant told Moody that, at that point, there was no plea offer on the table for Wilson.
"I asked if the defendant wanted a plea offer and I haven't heard anything back," Bryant said. "I don't typically make plea offers unless I know the defendant wants one."
Bryant said she emailed Proctor on March 6 to inquire in order to meet a joint reporting deadline to the court. Wilson's trial was scheduled to get underway April 3 in Jonesboro.
At that point, Moody, who had spent several minutes that morning on the phone with Proctor, began to lose patience.
"We had a lengthy conversation on the phone where you said you intended to plead this case all along, at least before trial," Moody said. "That's in two weeks. ... When did you discuss this with your client because he said he hasn't spoken to you since his bond hearing in early December."
Proctor said he had been working to postpone some state court hearings for Wilson to get his federal prosecution resolved first.
"What do you plan to do with the case, Mr. Proctor?" Moody asked, angrily. "You've left me hanging until two weeks before the trial and we emailed you yesterday to see if you were going to be here and we got ghosted. Radio silence. No response to our email at all."
Proctor explained that he had not responded to the email the night before because he had been in court all that day.
"I generally try to do it in the evening but I wasn't able to," he said. "I had every intent to be here at 10. I was set for 9 [in another court] but there was another case called before me."
Apologetically, Proctor tried to explain that he had been sick for two weeks and after court Thursday was "physically drained and tired," and had not gotten to all of his emails that day. Still angry, Moody explained that he had set the status hearing because of a lack of communication.
"The notion that I have to hold this hearing in the first place to find out what you plan on doing on a case that's set for trial two weeks from now in the first instance is unnecessary and a waste of time," Moody said. "And it's all on you because you haven't communicated with us and potentially not with your client in quite some time."
Proctor asked Moody if a hearing could be scheduled for early afternoon to enter a plea.
"I'll take whatever offer they're going to make to my client and see if we can get this resolved."
"You've probably got about 30 minutes to get that done," Moody said, relenting slightly. "I've got a 10:30, which it's 10:50 now and I've got an 11 o'clock and I didn't plan on being here waiting on you to get your plea this afternoon."
Moody then turned his attention to Childers, whose client, Michael Lynn Tappin, 28, of Little Rock, is scheduled to go to trial April 10 on drug distribution and firearm charges. Tappin was arrested by Little Rock police Aug. 20, 2021, after drugs and a pistol were reportedly found in his car following a traffic stop in southwest Little Rock. Childers arrived in court within a few minutes of receiving a call from Assistant U.S. Attorney Benecia Moore, the prosecutor in the case.
"There's been no motion for a continuance, no request to set a plea hearing and I don't have any information from Mr. Childers as to what he plans to do," Moody said. "That's why this hearing was called, to find out why I've been left in the dark three weeks before the trial.
"The notion of whether you want to get this pled or not, you already know that," Moody continued. "That's why we set this hearing, because we haven't heard from you. ... Here you are again, telling me you're going to get around to letting me know when you'll plea this case and we're three weeks out."
Childers, apologetically, told Moody he had not intended to leave him in the dark about his intentions.
"Well, we are in the dark," Moody shot back. "That's why we set this hearing. And I don't know how you told us you weren't going to be on time today. Did you talk to a live human being?"
"I emailed," Childers answered.
"No," Moody replied. "If you're supposed to be here within an hour of the court you don't assume we're going to be able to leave court to read your emails. ... And obviously, you were able to make it on 20 minutes notice."
At Childers request, Moody set a plea hearing for Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.
At 1 p.m., Proctor and Wilson returned to the courtroom with Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Fields stepping in for Bryant to handle the plea.
Wilson was accused of sending sexually explicit photos of himself to a 16-year-old family member, who, according to court records, told police that he had been sexually abusing her since she was 5 years old. She admitted to having sent Wilson two nude photos of herself, which Wilson later sent to the Tuckerman chief of police in an attempt to cooperate with the investigation, court records said, but he denied any wrongdoing, saying that he kept the images as evidence and as leverage against the girl's mother.
Wilson pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography and the other was dismissed. When he comes up for sentencing later this year, he faces a possible 10-year maximum prison sentence.