Assault case headed back to trial after high court rules Sanders was biased

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 31, 2000

A previously convicted Wilkinson County felon will stand trial again next month, after the state Supreme Court ruled Sixth District Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders was biased against the defendant during his original trial.

In March, the court reversed the October 1997 aggravated assault conviction of Louis &uot;Spoolaboo&uot; Clay and ordered the Wilkinson County Circuit Court to retry the case.

Six of the Supreme Court justices favored the ruling, while two did not participate in the vote. Those who favored the ruling argued that Sanders’ actions during the trial denied Clay his right to legal counsel and forced Clay to represent himself to avoid being sent back to jail until he secured an attorney.

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&uot;Judge Sanders’ course of conduct was clearly an abuse of judicial discretion which constitutes reversible error,&uot; the ruling reads.

The case wound up in the hands of the Supreme Court as a result of Clay’s appeal. Sanders did not receive any penalty because of the ruling.

Clay will stand trial June 12 on the same aggravated assault charge. He will be represented by court-appointed attorney Gus&160;Sermos of McComb.

Sanders has recused herself from the case, so Circuit Court Judge Forrest &uot;Al&uot; Johnson will preside over the trial.

District Attorney Ronnie Harper said his office is prepared to handle the case. &uot;I’ve tried it once. We’ll try it again,&uot; he said. &uot;I feel like the evidence is sufficient.&uot;

Clay is currently out of jail on a $40,000 bond. Prior to his release, Clay was serving a 20-year sentence on the aggravated assault conviction as an habitual offender with the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

An indigent case?

The state Supreme Court ruled Sanders acted inappropriately in several areas of the case. Much discussion surrounded whether Clay was indeed an indigent defendant and thereby entitled to a court-appointed attorney.

Clay’s original attorney, Thomas Rosenblatt, withdrew from the case because he said Clay would not work with him. The court then appointed Leonard Rosenthal of Natchez to represent Clay.

After several continuances in his trial date, Clay asked the court to grant another continuance on Oct. 16, 1997.

Clay also asked the court to dismiss Rosenthal as his attorney because the two disagreed on how to handle the case.

But Rosenthal claimed Clay was not indigent because of property he had seen as Clay’s residence. Clay also admitted to receiving $480 monthly is disability and food stamps.

For these reasons, Sanders stripped Clay of his indigent status and granted a motion allowing Rosenthal to withdraw as his attorney.

But the Supreme Court ruled Sanders was not in a position to take away Clay’s indigent status. Sanders had already granted the indigent status despite knowing Clay’s monthly income, and Rosenthal’s opinion on the matter was not sufficient to make the change, the court said.

&uot;The court finds that Judge Sanders abused her discretion in stripping Clay of his indigent status under the facts of this case,&uot; the court ruled.

According to the court record, Sanders told the defendant, &uot;The court is of the opinion that you (Clay) are doing everything in you power to prevent having a trial. That you are delaying the matter. And all of these are tactics.&uot;

Questions about bond

The Supreme Court also cited Sanders for raising Clay’s bond from $20,000 to $100,000 the day of the trial, without following established guidelines.

According to the court record, the reason Sanders gave for raising the bail was so the case would not undergo further delays and &uot;drag on and on and on.&uot;

Since Clay could not afford a $100,000 bond, he was forced to represent himself in court to avoid staying in jail while he found an attorney.

Clay was found guilty of aggravated assault after a two-day trial.

Harper said during his career as an attorney he has only seen a defendant represent himself two or three times.

&uot;It’s pretty uncommon,&uot; Harper said. &uot;Of course, they have a right to do that.&uot;

And Clay did a reasonably good job representing himself even though he was not an attorney, Harper said.

But the Supreme Court decided Sanders did not have the grounds to increase Clay’s bond just to speed up the process and get the case to trial.

&uot;The purpose of bail is to secure the presence of the accused at trial, not necessarily expedite the judicial process,&uot; the court ruled.

Prejudicial comments?

According to the court record, Sanders and Clay met in a closed-door session the day before to the trial. They discussed a letter from Clay to Rosenblatt, Clay’s first attorney, concerning Sanders’ alleged bias.

Clay explained to Sanders what he believed were her biased acts against him and asked for her recusal from the case, according to the court record.

As part of the session, they discussed an earlier conversation in which Clay had asked how he could pay rent if his small monthly earnings had to pay for an attorney.

Clay said Sanders had implied the state of Mississippi offered free housing in the form of prison.

&uot;You told me Parchman prison, so that intimided me. I felt that you was telling me, you know, you would lock me up in the pen or something,&uot; Clay said, according to the court record. &uot;You would send me to the pen. That was my impression.&uot;

Later, according to the court record, Sanders told Clay she was not biased against him because she did not deprive him of the possibility of having a majority black jury.

The Supreme Court also cited Sanders for making prejudicial comments implying one of the witnesses might lie in front of the jury during the trial.

According to the court record, Sanders reminded one of Clay’s witnesses about the penalties for lying while the witness was on the witness stand.

&uot;I’m here duty bound to explain to you that the penalty for lying under oath is 10 years,&uot; Sanders told the witness. &uot;That’s the maximum sentence for perjury, before you answer (Clay’s) question.&uot;