Sunday Focus: Recent arrests shine spotlight on plea deals

Published 12:01 am Sunday, September 30, 2018

NATCHEZ — Several recent arrests have brought to light a growing trend in the judicial system in which suspects strike plea deals in exchange for lesser charges with lighter sentences, serve a short time in prison and wind up back in court for similar crimes.

Three men — Darryl K. Hurts Jr., Darnell Stevenson and Russell Byron Hazlip — arrested last week had all only recently been released from prison after serving time for violent cases in which they had entered plea deals within the last two years.

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Hurts and Stevenson have been charged in connection with Sept. 22 shootings in Natchez that killed one man and injured two others. Hazlip was arrested on unrelated drug and weapons charges.

Plea deals, are a process in which a suspect agrees to admit some guilt, usually to a lesser charge in criminal cases, in exchange for a lesser charge that carries a lighter sentence.

Plea deals are efficient and are beneficial to both the accused and the prosecutors, saving the state the expense of a trial and saving the accused the chance of being convicted of a more serious crime and facing a tougher sentence.

Plea deals, however, officials say, have become more and more common, and prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officials all agree the process can be frustrating to them.

Case in point

Hurts, who faces charges of murder, four counts of aggravated assault, one charge of drive-by shooting, shooting into a dwelling, shooting into a vehicle and felony malicious mischief, in the Sept. 22 shootings, had only recently been released from prison, court records show.

Hurts had been in prison after making a plea deal for his part in an Oct. 11, 2015, shooting that had been characterized at the time as a drug-deal turned murder, resulting in the death Clifford Barnes, who died shortly after he was shot several times.

Hurts had originally been charged, along with three other suspects, with murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and armed robbery in connection to the Oct. 11, 2015, shooting that also injured a pregnant woman.

Kelsey Michael Watson was eventually convicted of murder in that case, but Hurts signed a waiver of indictment, essentially a guilty plea, in Adams County Circuit Court on March 27, 2017, to a charge of conspiracy to commit armed robbery for his part in the 2015 shooting. Hurts was sentenced to five years in prison or time served and had since been released from prison before his arrest last week in connection to the Sept. 22 shootings.

Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten said he is not sure of an exact date when Hurts was released from prison or why he was released early. However, Patten said, under state law, prisoners can be released by the Mississippi Department of Corrections after serving 20 to 25 percent of their sentences, which he believes was the case with Hurts and others arrested last week.

All of the recently released individuals who were arrested last week were released under parole, Patten said.

Plea deals

Several factors, criminal justice officials say, have led to the growing trend of plea deals.

“Because of TV, it has made it much harder to get a verdict on a jury trial,” said Debra Blackwell, a candidate for Sixth District Circuit Court Judge and an assistant district attorney for Sixth Circuit District Attorney Ronnie Harper.

Blackwell said many jurors who have watched hours of such shows as “CSI” and true crime television shows, come in to a trial wanting hard, conclusive evidence, such as video or DNA before convicting a suspect.

“In some cases there just isn’t any material evidence,” Blackwell said.

With such high expectations among jurors and cases that sometimes lack the hard evidence, it is sometimes better for prosecutors to consider a plea deal to ensure suspects serve some time rather than run the risk of putting them on trial and getting a hung jury or a not guilty verdict and having them walk free, Blackwell said.

“Sometimes when cases started out,” Blackwell said, “they have cooperative witnesses, and a year later the witnesses don’t want to cooperate, and we see we have a problem with the case, so we make a deal instead of having a problem with a case.”

Blackwell stressed, however, that plea deals come from the defense attorneys.

“We don’t make recommendations like a lot of prosecutors do,” Blackwell said in regards to plea deals.

Blackwell said when a suspect pleads murder down to assault, the DA’s office gives judges suggestions on appropriate sentencing.

Another case in point

Also arrested last week on charges unrelated to last week’s shootings was Hazlip who had recently been released from prison. Hazlip was picked up last week after Adams County deputies served a search warrant on his residence and said they found him in possession of several drugs and firearms.

Hazlip was being held last week in the Adams County Jail on a charge of being a felon in possession of a weapon, but Hazlip, court records show, had only recently been released from prison after entering a guilty plea to a charge of felony fleeing in Adams County Circuit Court on May 25, 2017, before Circuit Court Judge Forrest A. Johnson.

Hazlip was sentenced to serve five years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections with full credit for time served and fines and after “serving three years, the remaining two years shall be on formal reporting post release supervision…” court records state.

Hazlip, Patten said, was out on parole at the time of his arrest last week and the search of his residence was conducted under conditions of his parole.

Patten said law enforcement officers get frustrated seeing the same suspects come through not long after they had been sent to prison.

Patten, however, said he understands the delicate balance prosecutors must consider when weighing the chances for a successful prosecution against the success of a plea deal and how those odds could affect victims of crime and their loved ones.

“The evidence may not be strong enough to get everything they want, and they have to make a decision to go to court and risk losing it and not getting justice at all or getting to the door and put plea on the table and possibly see some justice,” Patten said. “That’s a tough decision for them to make.”

Patten said, however, that law enforcement officers never want to see a plea deal.

“In some of these cases I’d like to see a maximum sentence, and I know that is not the case all the time,” Patten said, adding the sheriff’s office does not confer with prosecutors on plea deals and don’t find out about them until they are done. “I leave it up to the judge,” Patten said. “It’s not for us to decide. For the DA, it is a tough thing they have to do.”

Patten noted that prosecutors have a tough role to play balancing victims’ rights to justice and criminals’ rights to due process, and he respects the system even though it sometimes frustrates him as a law enforcement officer.

What is best for victims

Darnell Stevenson who was wanted last week as a person of interest in the Sept. 22 shooting case and was arrested after deputies said they found him in possession of an AR-15-style rifle and charged him with felon in possession of a firearm and possession of stolen property.

Stevenson had been involved in the same Oct. 11, 2015, shooting case as Hurts and had originally faced a murder charge but later entered a guilty plea Aug. 3, 2017, to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and was out on parole when he was arrested last week, Patten said.

District Attorney Harper said he evaluates every case on its own merits.

“We evaluate the cases, quality of our cases and decisions about what our possibility of pursuing charges would be,” Harper said, adding he also consults with victims. “We go from there and try to get the best outcome.”

Harper said, another factor contributing to the higher number of plea deals is the state crime lab in Jackson that has a backlog of cases due to being underfunded by the state Legislature. The crime lab issue is a problem for multiple agencies throughout the state.

“With the crime lab, we have a hard time getting info from them with backlogs, and a shortage of forensics personnel,” Harper said. “We evaluate the cases to see what our chances are. We don’t have a problem trying them if we think we can get a conviction, but rather than someone walking out with nothing, a plea deal is an option.”

A larger problem

Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong said he, too, is sometimes dismayed when the police department sees repeat offenders going through the system, including Andrew Morgan, 51, who was charged with burglary earlier this month after being identified in home surveillance video footage taking an undisclosed amount of jewelry from an Orange Avenue house.

At the time, Morgan was already facing charges that were pending on an auto burglary, and he was facing theft charges from May.

Despite the May charge, however, Morgan had been released in June from parole after striking a plea deal on 2016 grand larceny charge.

“There are enough examples of individuals being let out of jail and getting into more trouble in a short period of time to look at these individuals,” Armstrong said, adding after a few offenses it should be easy to discern which people are likely to be repeat offenders when they are released.

“Judges, and the district attorney, look at things from their perspective, and it is different from us in law enforcement,” Armstrong said. “They need a strong enough case to get a conviction, I understand that, but when it is clear cut they have committed a violent crime or continue to commit property crimes, one cannot come to any other conclusion other than that this person has intention to commit more crimes.”

Armstrong said he understands that each case must be taken on its own merits in the judicial arm of the law.

“In some instances, criminal reform is not working,” Armstrong said. “In some instances, people are being let out only to get into more trouble. It is very disturbing to the community and puts us as law enforcement in a bad spot.”

Armstrong said the system is more than just its independent parts, however.

“There is more than one side to the system,” Armstrong said. “All sides play a part — prosecution, enforcement, citizens, courtroom and sentencing. It’s a lot of moving parts. All of them have to work together in tandem for it to work efficiently and effectively.”

Tougher sentencing an option

Holmes Sturgeon, who will face Blackwell on the November ballot for the Sixth District circuit court judge position, said he is disturbed by recent reports of arrests of people with criminal histories and recent prison releases.

“I’m very distraught about that,” Sturgeon said. “Such a sad, sad thing. Unfortunately, these prisons are turning out to be a training ground. When they come out, they are more hardened than when they went in.”

Sturgeon said he believes stiffer sentences would help.

“If these sentences would take advantage of the law on these things,” Sturgeon said, “sentence properly and heavily enough … then at some point they would be more appreciative when they got out.”

Sturgeon said suspects being released on recognizance bonds also are problem and he believes the DA is making too many plea deals.

“I plan to be stiffer on those,” Sturgeon said. “Stiffer sentencing will send a message and make a dig difference.”

Not just a local issue

Harper said plea deals are a growing trend throughout the nation and one factor is getting good jury pools and witnesses to participate.

Oftentimes, witnesses leave the area between the initial crime and investigation and the case coming to trial.

Sometimes witnesses back out for fear of retribution.

Harper said he implores citizens to get involved, especially if they witness a crime or get a jury summons.

“It doesn’t work if people aren’t on the jury or willing to serve,” Harper said. “It doesn’t work without good jurors, and anyone who gets a summons, I encourage them not to try to get out of it.”