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Fired officer's hearing halted

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
May 3, 2002
Never did a smart person in a tight fix need an attorney more than Rita Jack as a public hearing into her termination from the Meridian Police Department opened Thursday at Union Station.
Jack was fired from her position as a police officer Sept. 14 amid allegations that she and a civilian employee stole several thousand dollars worth of cash and checks from the MPD's front desk between February and May 2001.
Police Chief Benny DuBose said theft was suspected when bank deposits came up short. The termination came after internal affairs and criminal investigations.
While declining in September 2001 to reveal the identity of the civilian employee involved, DuBose said that she had been fired but would not be criminally prosecuted.
The civilian employee was Vivian Groves. She was the only witness to testify during the Meridian Civil Service Commission's hearing into the matter before it was stopped in mid-stream.
In unfamiliar waters
It was clear that Jack had researched her case, but native intelligence did not serve her well.
A hearing of this kind is structured much like a civil lawsuit in Lauderdale County's circuit or chancery courts. There are rules governing evidence, examination of witnesses and procedure. A person who is not an attorney is in a poor position to make the most of the forum.
Jack had been represented in the early phases of her appeal to the Civil Service Commission by Jackson attorney Felicia Perkins, who withdrew earlier this year.
The hearing, scheduled for 5:15 p.m., did not begin until 6 p.m. Part of the delay was attributable to city attorney Lee Thaggard's production of subpoenaed documents that Jack had not yet reviewed. Jack agreed to continue with the hearing after she was allowed a brief period to review these documents.
More delays resulted as Civil Service Commission attorney Lawrence Primeaux and Syria Sturdivant, the commission's chairman and an attorney herself, explained the procedures that would be followed.
It was an uncomfortable situation for both and they walked a fine line between providing information and giving advice.
Other problems included: 1) not all of the subpoenaed witnesses were there; and 2) some of the witnesses would have to leave before the hearing was over.
Sturdivant told Jack she had the right to ask that the hearing be re-scheduled for another day. Jack declined Sturdivant's carefully-worded remarks.
Testimony begins
Jack presented little of the substance of her case before making a motion again after question from Sturdivant for a delay, or "continuance" in the hearing. The commission granted the request.
Only one witness testified before that point, Vivian Groves, Jack's alleged accomplice in the thefts.
Groves testified that Jack walked into a room at the police station one day in February as Groves was shredding checks she had taken from a bank deposit bag. Later, Groves said, she and Jack decided to cooperate in stealing money and agreed to split the proceeds 50-50.
Groves did not initially accuse Jack.
She changed her mind after a visit from police Capt. Betty Evans.
In questioning Groves, Jack presented the idea that police investigators had forced her to name an accomplice in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution. Groves denied it.
In his truncated cross-examination, Thaggard took Groves back through the sequence of events and began to work on inconsistencies in Jack's accounts. He asked about a house-warming party that Groves said she had agreed to host for Jack  and then asserted that Jack had denied that she and Groves were friends during the police investigations.
The hearing ground to a halt shortly afterwards, as Jack objected repeatedly to Thaggard's presentation of documents she had not thoroughly reviewed. She was not, however, able to state her objections in the proper legal format.
Sturdivant asked Jack if she needed more time and Jack said, "Yes."
The city had no opportunity to present its case before it was all over at least for the moment.
What's next?
As the witnesses filed out of the room about 8 p.m., arrangements were being made for Jack to review the documents made available by the city just before the hearing.
Both sides seem confident of their cases.
Jack was, in fact, criminally prosecuted. Though she was never arrested, the case was presented to a Lauderdale County grand jury in November. The grand jury declined to indict her.
Thaggard had been more understated in his opening remarks, keeping his chair while asserting the city's adherence to all applicable regulations.