Man gets long-awaited day in court after spending more than 400 days in jail

Published 12:04 am Saturday, July 11, 2015

NATCHEZ — After spending more than 400 days in jail, a Natchez man had his long-awaited day in court on Wednesday.

Jhakeel Quantez Hawkins, 20, 29B 1/2 Brenham Ave., Natchez, was arrested in April 2014 by the Natchez Police Department for the Feb. 23 murder of Terrance Thornburg of Natchez.

Natchez Police Detective Jerry Ford said Thornburg died from a gunshot wound. He was found dead in his residence at 630 E. Stiers Lane, Natchez.

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Hawkins was one of three people charged with murder in the Thornburg case, Ford said.

Also arrested for the crime and charged with murder were Maurice Davis, 22, of 165 Tubman Circle, Natchez, and Alan T. Thomas, 32, of 199 Charles St., Petal.

Davis remains in the Adams County Jail, but is being held on an additional, unrelated charge. Thomas has been released from Adams County Jail, but Ford knew no specifics on where his case stands.

No bail was set during Hawkins’ preliminary hearing in municipal court in April 2014.

Since that time, Hawkins has been in the Adams County Jail without a bond and without legal representation, said Adams County Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess.

Vess set a $50,000 bond for Hawkins at a hearing on Wednesday. Hawkins was released on bond on Thursday.

The case against Hawkins was presented before a grand jury five times, Ford said, but was continued by the district attorney’s office each time with no indictment.

“It looks to me like this case fell into a black hole,” Vess said.

District Attorney Ronnie Harper said his office is no longer handling prosecution of the case.

“We did handle it for some period of time, but we were recused since the first of the year because (assistant district attorney) Tim Cotton came to work with us and he had represented one of the people charged in the murder case. That’s a pretty serious conflict of interest and the attorney general’s office agree to take the case,” Harper said.

Repeated attempts to reach someone with the Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office for comment were unsuccessful.

“You can’t just leave a man sitting there in limbo. Even the most heinous crime, the defendant associated with it has a right to legal representation,” Vess said. “I am not defending a man accused of murder, but I’m defending the legal system that gives every citizen basic constitutional rights.”

Vess is concerned the handling of Hawkins’ case by law enforcement and the district attorney could put it in jeopardy.

“My biggest fear was that a man accused of murder, who may have actually committed the murder, would be thrown out on a technicality. So, I upheld the system, not the defendant,” he said. “When I took the oath of office over 24 years ago, the first thing I swore to was to uphold the constitution of the United States. Even though I’m not a book-trained lawyer, I know enough about the law through service and other training courses to know that this was just wrong.”

Vess said a defendant is entitled to regular consultation with his representation.

“This man told me in court that his only contact with the outside world was with his aunt,” he said.

Vess said the district attorney’s office should have been more informed and involved that it has been.

“Ronnie Harper is the chief law enforcement prosecutor for this county and this district. He is well experienced and very competent,” Vess said. “I’m concerned either the communication broke down with the AG on this case and other high profile crimes. Just the day before this case, he was quoted in the newspaper as saying the AG does not have to notify him or provide him with any update on cases.

“While it may have been improper for him to get involved, it would not be improper to keep up with high profile cases such as murder. You can keep up with those cases without making legal decisions on the ultimate outcome,” Vess said.

Natchez Attorney Carmen Brooks, who works as a public defender in Adams County, was recruited by Vess to safeguard Hawkins’ rights during his Wednesday bond hearing.

“Carmen Brooks was gracious enough to set up to make sure Mr. Hawkins’ rights were maintained during the hearing,” Vess said.

He said Brooks had previously represented Hawkins in another legal matter in circuit court.

Brooks said that legal matter received a “non-adjudication decision and was dismissed. Once a case receives a non-adjudication, it’s like it doesn’t exist.”

While she said she has not been appointed attorney for Hawkins in this matter, attempts to reach him through Brooks on Friday were unsuccessful.