Working 4 You: Critics say COVID-19 response creating loopholes in court system

Working4You

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A man accused of murdering three Little Rock teenagers will get a chance at freedom, through what some are calling a loophole in the court system created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through the federal Emergency Powers Act, some judges are drastically lowering bond for accused offenders, making it much easier for them to get out of jail while they wait for trial.

The law lets judges lower bond on a case by case basis, to ideally prevent COVID-19 from spreading in jails and ease crowding since the pandemic is also causing significant delays with trials.

In Central Arkansas judges are giving that leniency to people accused in murders and shootings and there aren’t a lot of records being kept on this.

A FAMILY’S TAKE

Pictures of Carrington Williams cover rooms in her family’s house, but those frames can’t fill the void in her family left the day the 19-year-old was murdered.

“This has been the hardest thing in my life period,” said Carrington’s mom, Sheila Paskel. “There is a part of me that’s gone. I’m hurting. I hurt all the time.”

In November 2018, Little Rock police responded to West 14th Street for reports of a shooting. Police say Carrington, her boyfriend Kenelle Anderson, and friend LaTija Luckey died when their car was shot up. Another teenager was injured in the shooting.

Police believe Joshua Williams pulled the trigger, then fled to California, where he was found two months later.

“To think about how she went, how they went, how my baby left,” Paskel cried.

She says her daughter never got a second chance, something she fears the accused killed may get.

“We want justice, and even that is not enough because it won’t bring her back,” Paskel said.

Williams has been in the Pulaski County Jail ever since. At first, his bond was set at $2 million and it stayed that way for more than a year. This year in June, a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Circuit Court Judge Barry Sims slashed Williams’ bond to $250,000.

“What are they thinking? Do they just not care? Why do we have to live in fear?” Paskel questioned.

NO EASY ANSWER FROM THE COURTS

Since the pandemic started both the Federal and State Supreme Courts have issued guidance, but much of that requires judges to make decisions on a case by case basis.

“I have yet to see a judge who is stating that he or she will not follow the law or is making a decision contrary to the court’s orders,” said Executive Director of Arkansas’s Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, David Sachar.

Sachar says there’s never been a playbook for courts on how to handle a pandemic and that Emergency Powers is purposely vague so judges can use their own discretion.

“Some judges have put off jury trials for some length of time and that makes it more difficult to hold people,” he added.

Sachar believes that instead creates a bigger concern with Arkansas’ Speedy Trial law. It puts time limits on cases stating a person is “entitled to be released” without a bond if they’re “not tried in nine months.”

“It’s possible some judges are trying to prevent some of these defendants from being released with no bond by coming to an agreement to a lower bond knowing that some of these time limits are running out,” Sachar added.

So how many people have gotten out of jail using COVID-19 as an exemption? Turns out tracking that is out of the question.

We went to the State’s Office of Research and Justice Statistics to find out how many people got reduced bond because of COVID and were told, “regarding your data request, we haven’t found any consistent or unambiguous practices.”

We learned that judges across the state aren’t required to report this and there is no uniform way of keeping records. In most cases we found, judges are simply adding the change as a “note” in court records, that doesn’t have to mention COVID-19.

“You trying to look statewide to try to figure out how many continuances have been granted because of COVID would be impossible without you looking through every case or talking to every judge,” Sachar noted.

We learned of at least two other cases one involved Eric Hall, who police believe shot two people in Little Rock in January of this year. Hall’s bond was initially set at $750,000. In a request filed in April, Hall’s lawyer cites COVID-19 as why he needs a lower bond. Judge Sims cut Hall’s bond to $150,000.

Hall got out of jail and a month later was back behind bars, accused of threatening the family of one of his alleged victims.

Another case involves Gabrielle Hill. She’s facing two capital murder charges in connection to the killing of a Sherwood couple last year. At first, Hill had no bond, then in July Judge Chris Piazza set it at $75,000 and also ordered Hill to go to rehab if she made bail.

AN UNCLEAR FUTURE

Without a uniform policy, those who work closely with the court system say there will continue to be challenges as long as COVID remains a concern.

At Parents of Murdered Children, an advocacy group that works with families of victims, Amy Adams says they’ve seen a significant increase in accused offenders getting lower bonds.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that they’ll be able to talk to their parents and get out there and live a life,” Adams said. “What you’re doing is you’re re-victimizing these families.”

Adams says she’s pushed prosecutors for answers but can’t get them and now fears victims and their families are taking a backseat in the court system.

“We’re making our children go to school but we’re not making defendants who do violent crimes stay in jail,” Adams remarked.

It’s not much comfort for Paskel and her kids.

“It seems like the system is failing us,” she said.

Each day the family waits to see if Williams will make bail, knowing their biggest question may never get answered.

“What if the shoe was on the other foot? It was your family?” Paskel questioned.

“It was your child, it was your brother, it was your sister. What would you do?” added Paskel’s daughter, Taylor.

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