ACLU suing Mississippi county while men are stuck in jail

A quirk in Mississippi criminal law has left two men sitting in jail cells for almost a year without being formally indicted — and without legal representation.

And now the American Civil Liberties Union is suing on behalf of the two men — Octavious Burks, who was arrested on Nov. 18, 2013 with bond set at $30,000 for armed robbery, possession of a weapon by a felon, disorderly conduct, and possession of paraphernalia; and Joshua Bassett, arrested Jan. 16, 2014, for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine.

Bassett's bond is set at $100,000.

The ACLU lawsuit charges both men were denied counsel indefinitely. Lee said the reason, in part, is because part of the Mississippi judicial system is broke.

"It's kind of embarrassing that the ACLU has to come in and sue… This isn't a liberal or conservative issue, this is a constitutional issue," said Mississippi Public Defender Leslie Lee.

"Nobody is asking for a bail reduction. Nobody is asking for a preliminary hearing. Nobody is investigating their case.  So they just sit. That shouldn't happen," Lee said.

In Mississippi, after an initial hearing -- where the judge tells an accused criminal they have a right to counsel --the accused then fills out an application to request a lawyer if they cannot afford one, Lee said.

"What happens in Scott County, is apparently… [the application] gets passed to Judge Gordon, who's on the circuit court, and in a fairly timely manner -- two to three weeks at the most -- he will sign off and say 'yes, you’re entitled to counsel.' But he doesn't appoint them," Lee said.

Mississippi's 8th Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon said it's Scott County law enforcement officials and the district attorney who are responsible for making sure accused criminals get in and out of jail by posting bond or having a trial.

"That's their job," Gordon said. "My job is to hear the case when it's brought before me. And it was not brought before me. I had no idea - I don’t even know the guys we’re talking about. I do not know they were arrested - I don't know for what charges…I did not know they were in jail."

Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee and District Attorney Mark Duncan were asked to comment on the cases, but neither has responded.

"The notion that [Judge Gordon], who has oversight over every court in that district and who's jurisdiction extends to every case -- criminal or civil -- doesn't have the authority to appoint a defendant counsel -- it's hard to believe," said ACLU Staff Attorney Brandon Buskey.

"If you look at the statutes and rules in Mississippi, there is absolutely nothing preventing someone like Judge Gordon from appointing counsel," Buskey said.

In addition to Burks' and Bassett's legal limbo, the ACLU says it has evidence that many other inmates also have been trapped inside the Scott County Detention Center because “they couldn’t pay bail and, like Mr. Bassett and Mr. Burks, were denied counsel and a grand jury hearing.”

The group also believes this is happening across the US.

"In too many places across the United States, poor people languish in jail for weeks and months, crowding the system because they can’t make bail and are waiting for an indictment or a public defender.  Reform can’t come soon enough," the ACLU said.