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Judge Lester Williamson comes through with answers

By By Suzanne Monk / The Meridian Star
June 2, 2002
This column is an expansion of an item that appeared as a six-line "bullet" last week. Buried in the middle of it is a set of facts that by all rights should have appeared in a
6-inch story on the records page.
Last week's column was a collection of answers to questions posed by readers. One came from a man who did not identify himself.
He asked: "How come we have an out-of-town judge over there in city court this morning? And, I want to know if The Meridian Star has two sets of rules about which DUIs get reported one for rich people and one for everybody else."
It was Thursday, May 23. I can now answer the man's question.
Why the delay?
Verifying anything that happens in Meridian Municipal Court if I was not actually present has been a problem. Court clerks are not allowed to answer questions, or refer you to someone else who can, even though hearings and trials happen in open court.
All questions had to be referred to City Clerk Ed Skipper. Why Ed Skipper? I don't know. A written request for public records information had to be submitted. City officials had 14 days to respond.
An impossible situation for a daily newspaper. Imagine writing a story that goes, "Hey, you know that thing that happened last month? Well, here's the scoop."
Skipper and I have had conversations about it, but had not arrived at a mutually agreeable solution. Hoping to avoid a 14-day waiting period in this instance, I started making phone calls to see if anyone else was authorized, and willing, to answer questions.
Well, as it turns out, Municipal Judge Lester Williamson Jr. is both. Judges are generally touchy about being interviewed for attribution, but I called him. We played telephone tag for a few days, and I spoke with him on Wednesday.
Why the May 23 trials are of interest
One: Because readers want to know. The man who first asked about DUI trials on May 23 is not the only person who contacted me.
Two: Because it's not a good thing for people to wonder whether the newspaper is part of a conspiracy to protect some people from bad publicity.
Three: Because it's fairly uncommon for an out-of-town judge to be called in to hear a case in city court. I write a lot about how courts work and why they do what they do. I wondered why the judge had recused himself, and what the process to select an out-of-town judge is like.
By the way, I did not know whose DUI trials were involved when I started that's another conspiracy theory The Meridian Star takes no interest in.
Why an out-of-town judge was called in
Here is what Judge Williamson said about the two DUI trials in question.
Judge Hardy Stennis of Macon presided. Local attorney Pat Jordan was the first defendant. He was found not guilty. Kennedy Smith was the second defendant. She is underage. She pleaded guilty and received a "non-adjudicated sentence," which means her record will be expunged if she successfully completes her probation.
Williamson recused himself in the first case because his law firm and Jordan's are working on some litigation together. He recused himself in the second because Smith is the mayor's daughter and the mayor is his boss.
Lauderdale County's justice court judges were asked if they were willing to preside, but they also felt they had conflicts. Williamson sat down with city prosecutor Alfred Corey and the defense attorneys, and they discussed other possibilities.
Judge Stennis was chosen. He presides over municipal courts in Scooba and DeKalb. An out-of-town prosecutor, Doug Smith, was also chosen. Smith works for Newton County Justice Court. Stennis received a $400 fee. Smith got $80 an hour.
These are the facts. Take out your ruler and measure this section of the column. 6 inches. Maybe less.
What else the judge said
I thanked Judge Williamson for his candor, and we talked a little about my column two weeks ago. It was about the casually noisy atmosphere in city court.
Williamson was appointed city judge in 1989. He says you can't please everyone, but he finds the job "refreshing."
He also offered his help to The Meridian Star in the future.
Thank you, judge. I'll do that.

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