The chief and the director

Oct. 29, 2007

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By all accounts, DeKeesha McPhearson was prepared to go to jail when she walked in to the main offices of the Little Rock Police Department one evening late last month.

Not only was it supposed to happen — she was giving herself up to an arrest warrant — McPhearson, then 21, had even planned for it, preparing a bag with a few items she hoped to take inside with her, City Director Joan Adcock, who was there with her, said. Adcock met McPhearson through the Hope Center, a small nonprofit organization the city director runs in south Little Rock that assists needy families in finding jobs, housing and new skills.

At the police station, according to interviews, Adcock talked to Police Chief Stuart Thomas, and Thomas talked to Little Rock District Court Judge Lee Munson. They decided McPhearson could go home that night and come back the next day to court, even though the arrest warrant carried a red stamp that said, “COURT OR PAY-OFF ONLY DO NOT CITE OR BOND” and even though, as Thomas acknowledged in an interview, police protocol dictated otherwise.

Thomas said he ordered the desk officer that evening to recall the patrol officers who were on their way to take McPhearson into custody and to fill out a court-appearance agreement with an extra hand-written notation, which exists on a copy of the document: “Per order Judge Munson/Chief Thomas.”

McPhearson was never taken into custody and never paid the $1,240 in fines assessed to her. This was her second arrest warrant in this case, court records show, the first canceled when she agreed to community service in June 2006 in lieu of the fines. The second warrant went out the next month after she failed to show up, records show.

When she appeared with Adcock at her side before Munson on Sept. 28 — the day after Adcock met with Thomas — she was sentenced to time already served, court records show, though she had not served any time.

“We helped this young woman,” Adcock said, “at a time she needed our help. I hope you don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Thomas was more blunt.

“If it offends your sensibilities that I showed a little bit of compassion, write me up,” he said.

With Pulaski County’s jail chronically overcrowded, the responsible thing was to let McPhearson go, Thomas said.

“I had a city director standing right in front of me promising this young woman would make her court appearance,” he said. “That was good enough for me.”

Adcock told Thomas that McPhearson had a medical issue related to her most recent pregnancy, which Thomas said factored into his decision.

“If we take her at that point, and she has a medical issue, I have to pay for that,” the chief said. “If she’s in our holding facility, she’s our problem. I didn’t think it was wise to take the chance that this might turn out to be expensive. That’s not in my budget.”

Munson did not respond to several requests for comment.

McPhearson, whom Adcock said did not have a steady address, could not be reached for an interview.

Jim Clark, director of the Criminal Justice Institute administered by the University of Arkansas system, which trains police in everything from management techniques to computer-aided investigations, said Thomas needed better answers.

“In my opinion, he needs some sort of legal reason, supported by documentation, for going against his own protocol,” Clark said. “These are the kinds of decisions that beg to get scrutinized, and I’m sure he knows that. I mean, especially with a city council member being involved, he had to know this was going to be looked at.”

Thomas said he relied on his judgment in that moment alone.

CITATIONS AND COMPLICATIONS

The arrest warrant stemmed from two traffic citations first issued almost exactly a month apart in 2005.

The charges were nothing extraordinary. One ticket, issued July 31 that year, accused McPhearson of driving a 1995 Oldsmobile with expired tags, no proof of insurance and no driver’s license near the Hilton hotel on South University Avenue. The other, issued Aug. 25 and mentioning the same car, contends she ran a red light, had no driver’s license, no proof of insurance and failed to show proper registration at West 36th Street and John Barrow Road.

The deadline to pay her fines came and went with no payment. Little Rock District Court Judge Vic Fleming, who handles the bulk of traffic cases, issued a warrant for McPhearson’s arrest, records show, later giving her the option of community service.

She was supposed to report to the Pulaski County sheriff’s office in mid-July 2006. According to a letter to Fleming from the sheriff’s office, dated July 19, 2006, she was one of nine people who never showed.

Eight days later Fleming issued another warrant for her arrest.

In April 2007, McPhearson won a referral to the Hope Center, where she met Adcock.

A one-page letter dated Sept. 24, 2007, which Adcock and Hope Center Program Director Linda McConnell sent to Little Rock District Court asking that McPhearson get another chance at community service, describes the young woman’s situation.

McPhearson, who turned 22 this month, was pregnant with twins — her third and fourth children — when she first came to the Hope Center for help finding a job, learning some new skills and getting her high-school-equivalency degree, Adcock and McConnell wrote.

“Because of complications of her pregnancy, she was unable to attend class, and she could not be placed in a job because of her condition,” Adcock and McConnell wrote. “She tried to work on her GED, however, even this was not possible.”

At the time Adcock and McConnell wrote the letter, McPhearson’s children were 3 years old, 18 months old and the twins 2 months old. Housing regulations meant she could not live full-time with her mother, whose rent was subsidized.

“Please consider her for community service again,” Adcock and McConnell wrote to the court, “and allow her to be placed at one of Little Rock’s Alert Center [sic] where she can get some office experience or at an Animal Village to work in the shelter cleaning.”

Adcock said she hoped to help find permanent housing for McPhearson and her children, but that with an active arrest warrant doing so would be impossible.

“This is a woman who deserves better for herself, and that’s why I’m here,” Adcock said.

‘I MAKE MY OWN DECISIONS’

Three days after the date on that letter, at a little after 5 p.m., Adcock and McPhearson were at the Little Rock Police Department on West Markham Street.

To cope with her medical issue, McPhearson brought along some sanitary napkins she hoped to take into jail with her, Adcock said. The desk officer, Adcock said, told her that was likely impossible, that jail rules forbid prisoners bringing personal items in with them.

Then she went to talk to Thomas.

“I had some questions about crime in southwest Little Rock,” Adcock said.

It hadn’t occurred to her, she said, to bring up McPhearson’s case.

“So Director Adcock came in and we talked a while and finally I said, ‘Well, what are you doing in the building?’” Thomas said. “She told me, ‘Oh, just keeping your jail full.’”

Thomas said he asked what that meant, and Adcock told him about McPhearson.

“Given the time — court was already closed — I didn’t think this young woman needed to spend any time locked up, and so I made a call,” Thomas said. “This kind of thing happens all the time.”

Thomas did, however, want to make one thing clear.

“At no time — at no time — did Director Adcock ask me to intervene in this situation,” he said.

The warrant came from Fleming’s court, but Thomas called Munson. Fleming declined to comment on this specific case.

“Anything I have to say might just look bad, and I wouldn’t necessarily mean it that way,” he said.

But speaking generally, he said, in his 11-plus years on the bench he has gotten similar calls “maybe 12 to 15 times.”

If the warrant came from a different judge, Fleming said, “My habit is to always ask one question first if I get one of those calls, and that is, ‘Did you call the correct judge first?’”

Fleming happened to be out of town at a conference, he said, but he answers his cell phone even on the golf course.

“Judge Munson was who I decided to call,” Thomas said, declining to elaborate. “I make my own decisions.”

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