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Mississippi County Sued for Indefinitely Holding Prisoners Without Charge or Access to Lawyer

StoryOctober 01, 2014
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The American Civil Liberties has filed a federal lawsuit against Scott County, which is about 25 miles from the capital of Jackson, over allegations that it has held prisoners for nearly a year without formal charge or access to an attorney. The two plaintiffs in the case are Octavious Burks, held for more than 10 months without formal charge, and Joshua Bassett, held for eight months. Burks was arrested for armed robbery, and Bassett for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine. Overall, the ACLU estimates at least 50 people are being held in the Scott County in a similar situation — no indictment and no access to a lawyer. We are joined by Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and lead attorney on the case in Scott County, Mississippi.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a look at another case of prisoners held in jail indefinitely, this time in Mississippi. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against Scott County, which is about 25 miles from the capital of Jackson, over allegations that it has held prisoners for nearly a year without formal charge or access to an attorney. The two plaintiffs named in the case are Octavious Burks, held for more than 10 months without formal charge, and Joshua Bassett, held for eight months. Burks was arrested for armed robbery, and Bassett for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine. Overall, the ACLU estimates at least 50 people are being held in the Scott County jail in a similar situation—no indictment and no access to a lawyer.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU, lead attorney in the case in Scott County, Mississippi.

Welcome to Democracy Now! How did you find this case? Lay out what you found there.

BRANDON BUSKEY: Well, we have been investigating the situation in Mississippi throughout the state for roughly a year and a half. We knew, coming in, that there was a serious problem with the right to counsel throughout the state, and also that individuals, even before they are formally charged with the crime, faced an indefinite amount of time in jail, because the state places no limit on the amount of time that an individual may be in jail before the prosecutor has to bring a formal indictment. So, in making contacts throughout the state and in talking to public defenders, talking to judges, talking to civil rights lawyers, we were able to establish a fairly decent network.

And it so happened that about two months ago, we received a call concerning Octavious Burks, the individual that you just showed on the screen just there. It was from his family. They were completely desperate and seeking help, trying to understand what was happening with their son. He had been in jail since November of last year on an attempted armed robbery charge. It’s a very serious charge. However, he wanted his day in court, and he wanted a lawyer. But in Scott County, he was not being provided with either of those. And so, when they reached out to us, they wanted to know why he had not been assigned an attorney and why it had taken so long even to bring a formal charge, and if he was going to be charged at all in the case.

So we began looking into it, making visits, seeking documents, and we found out that basically the standing policy in Scott County, like in so many other places throughout Mississippi, is not to assign an individual an attorney until they’ve been indicted. Now, if you’re in New York City, for example, that may not be a big deal, because the prosecutor has only six days from the time of arrest to bring an indictment. However, in Scott County, what we learned, they only have—the grand jury only issues indictments about three times per year. So if you’re simply arrested during the wrong period of the year, you’re automatically waiting three and perhaps five months to even find out if the state intends to proceed against you. In Octavious’s case, the state had missed several indictment dates in his case, and that is why he had been languishing in jail since November. And so, once we found that out about his case, once we looked further into the situation in the Scott County jail and found that there were dozens of other people who were facing a very similar situation, we decided that we had to take action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In all these years, there’s never been a challenge in the federal courts about the due process situations here?

BRANDON BUSKEY: No, there had not. And this is one of the things that we’re really seeking to establish here, is some basic fundamental rights that have not been pressed through the courts and answered by the Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: And how typical is Scott County?

BRANDON BUSKEY: Throughout Mississippi, Scott County, I fear, is fairly typical. You know, I’ve talked with public defenders and others throughout the state, and the story is very consistent. I’ve had public defenders tell me that until you’re indicted on a case, I don’t know you exist. In The New York TimesThe New York Times did a wonderful piece about this situation. The senior circuit judge, who is named in this lawsuit, said, “Well, I had never heard of these cases. I can’t do anything about this case until it gets into my court.” And this is a judge who oversees the entire court system. And I think that that attitude pervades the entire state. However, I do want to point out that this is not simply a problem for Mississippi.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

BRANDON BUSKEY: It’s a problem nationwide. And the ACLU has been looking at these cases throughout the country in states like New York, Utah, Pennsylvania. The problem is pervasive.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you. And we will certainly continue to follow this, Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the Criminal Law Reform Project of the ACLU, lead attorney in the Scott County, Mississippi, case.

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