LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Some people accused of violent crimes are getting a chance at freedom, then ending up back in jail accused of new crimes.
These are cases where someone gets out on either bond, parole, or probation and is then accused of committing another violent crime.
Protecting the rights of people accused of breaking the law is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system, but it’s also leaving some Little Rock families questioning who courts are really protecting.
FAMILIES CAUGHT IN CROSSFIRE
On March 13, 2021, 10-year-old Ja’Aliya Hughes was killed during a shooting at Boyle Park.
“They robbed me of my own child,” her mom Yuquita Bradley said.
Little Rock Police believe Ja’Aliya was hit by stray bullets during a shooting involving 18-year-old Eric Hall Jr. and 18-year-old Ladarius Burnett.
Both Hall and Burnett were out on bond, accused in separate shootings.
On April 10, 2021 Deante Smith was murdered in front of his kids when he was shot at carnival outside a Little Rock shopping center.
Police say 16-year-old Keaton McGee was involved in his murder. McGee was out on bond, accused in another shooting.
JUDGES WEIGH DECISIONS
In both cases the people police say pulled the trigger had a chance at freedom, a decision that falls on judges.
“It’s a balancing act,” said former Pulaski Circuit Court Judge Chris Piazza.
Piazza retired at the end of 2020 after sitting on the bench for almost 3 decades. Before that he was a county prosecutor.
“You have to weigh the protection of society to someone who has a violent history, versus being incarcerated until they can have their day in court,” Piazza explained.
He says thing got more complicated when COVID-19 closed courts and pressured judges to reconsider bond.
“In my court I could get a jury trial to court within 6 months and now those cases are all being pushed,” Piazza explained.
Piazza also knows there are times when someone gets out of jail only to end up back behind bars.
“It’s difficult to make that call. Sometimes when you have a more serious case you want to err on the side of incarceration,” he said.
FAMILIES QUESTION WARNING SIGNS
In the days since Ja’Aliya’s murder at Boyle Park, some question if warning signs were missed.
Court records for one of her accused killers, Lardarius Burnett, show he was arrested in November 2019. Prosecutors say he shot a teenager 7 times. His bond was initially set at $100,000 but a few months later was dropped to $30,000. Burnett made bail and was released.
In July 2020 prosecutors filed a motion to revoke Burnett’s bond. In the motion prosecutors wrote that Burnett was involved in another shooting and there was video of him, “holding a gun and firing it.”
Burnett went back to jail and a week later Judge Leon Johnson set his bond at $20,000 and ordered him to wear an ankle monitor.
Burnett made bail and two months later prosecutors were back in court trying to get his bond revoked.
According to court records, Burnett wasn’t charging his ankle monitor and kept breaking house arrest.
Judge Johnson never ended up answering that request. Less than 2 weeks after it was filed, tragedy hit Boyle Park.
LIMITATIONS ON RECORDS
Working 4 You wanted to see how often people accused of violent crimes have bond revoked, but learned the state’s court system doesn’t track that.
Working 4 You then checked ankle monitoring records.
According to the Administrative Office of the Courts it had a hard time finding a total since courts either aren’t routinely posting this information or aren’t using electronic monitoring. The records it could find shows at least 249 people a year have been ordered to wear an ankle monitor since 2017.
FOLLOWING COURT ORDERS
Making sure people follow court orders after they’re sentenced, falls on probation and parole agents at the Department of Community Corrections.
“You never know what’s going to be on the other side of the door,” said Agent Bryan Padgett.
Padgett spends days checking on people who are either out on probation or parole.
“We supervise anything from hot checks to murders to sex offenders to misdemeanors,” Padgett said.
He says he’s seen cases where the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime but knows that decision is out of his hands.
“We try not to be surprised, but sometimes there’s some things you couldn’t believe but it’s out of our control,” Padgett added.
What Padgett can control is making sure each person he’s assigned follows the rules, if they don’t, then he reports that. Ultimately. the final decision on what to do next is up to the judge or parole board
“We just handle it and go on and make sure that everybody is held accountable,” Padgett said.
It all goes back to a balance of justice, but for families caught in the middle like Ja’Aliya’s, they keep questioning if something could have prevented their loss.
“They took my baby,” Bradley said.
Working 4 You reached out to several prosecutors. None wanted to talk on the record saying they didn’t want to jeopardize their cases or relationships with judges.
Last year the Arkansas Supreme Court directed judges to review bond for all cases where it wasn’t given or where the person hasn’t been able to make bail in at least a year.
COVID has left courts across the state facing growing backlogs of cases, meaning judges will have to continue to revisit bond.