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Notes from the courts beat

By Staff
Nov. 25, 2001
There were a fair number of developments this week, despite the fact that most public offices were closed Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday. Here's a handful of updates and observations.
Wilkes &McHugh update
The Meridian Star reported in October that Wilkes &McHugh, a Florida law firm that specializes in nursing home abuse cases, was planning an expansion in Mississippi and had already filed about 40 lawsuits statewide.
Three of those lawsuits were filed in Lauderdale County. One had been dismissed by mutual consent by the time our October story was published. There have been developments in the other two.
A settlement for an undisclosed amount is under discussion in a lawsuit filed in behalf of Charley C. Reed against King's Daughters and Sons Rest Home.
The proposed settlement has several noteworthy features: 1) The rest home, in agreeing to settle, would not admit liability; 2) Attorneys for the rest home are seeking to have the court record sealed under a law governing vulnerable and incompetent people; and 3) Rest home officials want the people who have brought suit, and their attorneys, to be barred from disclosing either the amount of the settlement or the fact a settlement has occurred.
In the final lawsuit still pending, nursing home owner Guy Howard has been instructed not to write any more letters about nursing home lawsuits to his patients or their families. Howard owns Benchmark Health Care, and is being sued in a wrongful death action brought by Wilkes &McHugh.
Here comes the judge
We got an e-mail from a man in Wisconsin who said his sister was being wrongfully held in the Lauderdale County jail. We get a lot of phone calls and e-mails like this, but I told him I would check it out.
I talked to jail personnel, who told me she had been arrested Nov. 5 on a misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia charge. The other people arrested at the same time had bonded themselves out and left her there.
She was in limbo, and here's how it happened.
The arresting officer was from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. He had written up the charges against her on a traffic ticket instead of an affidavit. A judge hadn't been assigned because the court administrator couldn't get the officer to come in and fill out the right paperwork.
Her bond was set at $500. She didn't have $500. Local bail bondsmen are generally willing to bail people out for 10 percent of the bond amount, but she was from out-of-state. That apparently made them more cautious.
Meanwhile, it was Nov. 20 and she had not yet appeared before a judge.
It sounded weird to me, so I called Justice Court Judge Jim Edwards. It guess it sounded weird to him, too. Less than an hour later, she had appeared before him and was released for time served.
Last I heard, she was on her way to Florida.
Quick takes:
USM and the Gulf Coast: Steve Gillespie, a reporter for The Meridian Star, looked into the status of a dispute over the University of Southern Mississippi's plans to open a four-year branch campus on the Gulf Coast. Attorneys for both sides presented oral arguments before the Mississippi State Supreme Court in October, and are hoping for a decision before the end of the year.
To date, the State Board of Community and Junior Colleges, which opposes USM's plans, has spent $75,000-$80,000 on legal fees. The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, which supports USM's position, has spent more than $100,000; that money came from USM's budget.
In the meantime, the district attorney's office has released a "no bill" list of people who were not indicted. James Beavers, a Southeast Middle School teacher arrested Oct. 20 for manslaughter, is on it. This is not unexpected; the charges had been dismissed Oct. 26 by Justice Court Judge William Gunn.
Other names that have appeared prominently in The Meridian Star did not appear on the "no bill" list but that doesn't necessarily mean they were indicted. There is a range of possibilities and no assumptions can be made until after Dec. 7.
In the movies: I watched "Miracle on 34th Street" on television the other day, and couldn't help but notice that the courtroom was full of people who were there to watch. It got me thinking about other classic movies with courtroom scenes, like "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Inherit the Wind."
Were those rows and rows of courtroom spectators just a Hollywood convention? Did directors use them as an artistic device to let audiences know how they were supposed to feel? Did it used to make sense to movie audiences that there were spectators in the courtroom because people attended trials? Is it because the kind of trials featured in movies are so interesting that anybody would want to go see them?
I don't know, but whatever the reason, real courtrooms are pretty empty.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail her at