A tale of two courthouses: Benton opened new building in 2002 to replace 1872 structure

By Joyce Brock/Southern Advocate

ASHLAND – If you ask Benton Countians for directions to the courthouse, they’ll likely ask, “Which one?”
The historic Benton County courthouse was completed in 1872, just two years after the county was formed. For more than a century, the building was home to all of the county’s business. Around it developed a typical town square, with various businesses, a bank and the town’s post office.
Since then, most of the county’s business has moved to a new location. Likewise, the post office moved to a new location. The old bank has been renovated into a townhouse and businesses have spread across town.
Still, the historic courthouse is not empty, nor is its square. The historic building serves as the central office of the Benton County Department of Education. It is surrounded by a newer bank, businesses, including an auto and tractor parts store, barber shop, medical supply store, restaurants, law offices and more.
Though it is no longer host to court and various clerks’ offices, the historic building continues to hold a sentimental value to many county residents and it continues to be commonly referred to as “the courthouse.” The courthouse is one of the most often photographed buildings in the county. Benton County photographer Theresa Dunlap gained local notoriety for her photo of the building titled “Night Court.” Greeting cards featuring an artist’s rendering of the building are sold at the county’s historical society and at businesses.
County business was moved to a new location out of necessity from a range of issues, including overcrowding and wheelchair accessible compliance. A plan to renovate a former textile factory into a new justice complex was adopted.
The new 23,000-square-foot county courthouse, which opened in 2002, features two state-of-the-art courtrooms, board rooms, conference rooms and most major county offices. Among the major offices located within the courthouse are the Justice Court Clerk’s office, the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, the Chancery Court Clerk’s office, the Tax Assessor/Collector’s office, the Remapping and Reappraisal Office, the Veteran’s Affairs office, the county Homeland Security office, judges’ offices and more.
The technology featured in the Justice Courtroom and the Circuit/Chancery Courtroom is perhaps the new courthouse’s proudest feature. The courtrooms feature a video display system for presenting evidence, which allows evidence to be viewed by the jury, judge and audience to simultaneously view video footage. A projection system aids in the display of documents and photographs. Wireless microphones allow attorneys to move freely during trials. The judge’s benches and counsel tables are equipped to allow judges and attorneys to connect computers to aid in presentation. The technology means that evidence typically doesn’t need to be passed around and allows complex trials to move more quickly.
The layout of the courtrooms was also designed for ease of use. The witness stand is centered in front of the jury box, rather than being adjacent to the judge’s bench. The counsel tables are located at equal distances from the jury.

About this series
THIS IS THE THIRD of a 16-part weekly series on courthouses in Northeast Mississippi. The stories will appear on Page 2A each Monday of the NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.

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