Initial signs of changes in court, DA’s office encouraging

Published 9:47 am Monday, February 5, 2024

The Natchez community was gripped in fear in January while three teenage inmates from a Hinds County juvenile lockup eluded capture in Adams County.

The three teens – who also had escaped together in 2023 – have lengthy rap sheets, including aggravated assault, murder, felony armed robbery and auto theft charges. And during a massive four-day manhunt, not only were residents scared – they were angry. Anyone who scrolled social media or chatted with a co-worker heard the same questions and concerns about a lax judicial system that allows individuals charged with felonies – even charged with murder – to go free on bond for years?

At the heart of the issue is the case of 17-year-old Tayshon Holmes of Natchez.

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At the age of 15, Holmes was arrested and charged as an adult in the murder of Bill Calvin Jr. of Natchez. Bond was set originally at $500,000, but it was reduced in January 2022 by then-Circuit Court Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders to $100,000. Holmes was able to make bond and was free until he was arrested in September 2022 and charged with shooting his stepfather. That charge landed Holmes in the Hinds County facility from which he escaped – twice.

Natchez and Adams County residents were angry – and rightfully so. A murder suspect had been released on a ridiculously low bond and now, after being charged with another assault, was back in the county terrifying residents.

Justice Court Judge Danny Barber’s decision to set $3 million bonds for each of the three escapees was praised by local residents, who were happy to see some “tough on crime” decisions. And when Wednesday’s court docket opened, lots of eyes were watching both Sixth District Circuit Judge Debra Blackwell and newly elected District Attorney Tim Cotton as Holmes returned to court for an arraignment in the 2021 murder case.

When Blackwell denied bond, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief echo in the community. And when Cotton explained the case had not been taken to the grand jury until May 2023, that sigh of relief was followed by a groan of frustration.

Wary watchers have long raised questions and concerns about the perception of a lack of efficiency in the District Attorney’s office and a generous leniency in setting bonds and sentences from the bench.

With Cotton and a new staff in place in the District Attorney’s office, and with the commitment of judges like Blackwell and Barber, many people are hopeful changes are ahead in the judicial system.

If the first 35 days of 2024 are an indicator, signs are encouraging that change in the favor of victims and justice are under way.