Watchdog acts against justice court judge

Published 1:02 am Wednesday, August 3, 2016

NATCHEZ — For a February incident in which he threatened a defendant with a gun, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance recommended Tuesday that Adams County Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess be fined, reprimanded and suspended.

Vess did not deny the charges. Vess said he did threaten to reach into his pocket and use his gun on a defendant who allegedly kept putting his hands in his hoodie pocket and acting threateningly. Vess also said he made disparaging remarks against the defendant’s mother.

For this incident, the commission made the recommendation to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which will make the final decision. The commission calls for a suspension of 30 days without pay, a fine in the sum of $1,000 and assessed court costs in the sum of $200.

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It is the ninth time the commission has faulted Vess, though he said many of them have been dismissed.

Vess said the defendant in this case was Michael Thomas, 19, who on July 7 was arrested in connection with a shooting during a dice match at the Holiday Apartments on July 3. Thomas was charged with aggravated assault.

Back in February, he was in court for a charge that the prosecution argued should be set aside to keep the peace between Thomas and the victim of the earlier crime.

Vess said Thomas kept acting fidgety, defensive and would not keep his hands out of the pocket of his hoodie, despite being told multiple times by the deputy and bailiff in the courtroom.

“I asked him if he understood why they wanted him to keep his hands out of his pocket,” Vess said, adding the defendant allegedly indicated he did not. “I said, ‘Because if your hands come out of that hoodie with anything other than four fingers and a thumb, I might have to reach into my pocket, pull out my gun and do something bad.”

Vess said he was wrong in his actions.

Regarding the disparaging remarks, Vess said he was trying to act like a father figure rather than a judge.

Vess said before he lets someone out of a courtroom facing charges, he likes to get a feel for them. Vess said he asked Thomas about his ability to pass a drug test, if he had a job, plans to go to school and other questions related to his future.

Vess said based on Thomas’ answers, he started to get the feeling the young adult was just going to end up back in court if nothing was done.

“I said to the mother, ‘If you can’t control him, I can,’” he said. “At that point I ceased acting in a judicial demeanor and started acting like a father instead of a judge, which was the wrong thing to do.”

Vess said Thomas has been arrested three more times since February, including in connection with the July the shooting.

“It seems like in the judicial system we are not doing as much as we can,” he said. “I just wanted to convey to this mother that this was a young man headed in the wrong direction.”

Vess said overall he felt like he’s been a good judge, having served for more than 20 years. He recalls another time he was reprimanded when he and his wife visited a girl who he scolded in court about her drug problem. He said she went on to become a straight-A student in college.

“One thing I feel that is lost in the judicial system is the word rehabilitation,” he said. “It seems like we are trying to fast track these people and forget many can be helped or saved.”