Hed: Defense fund set up to assist African-Americans

Hed: Defense fund set up to assist African-Americans

By Cynthia M. Jeffries

Daily Journal

A group of legal representatives and ministers have started a defense fund to help young black men and women get good legal representation in criminal court proceedings.

The African-American Legal Defense Fund announced its goals and plans Wednesday during a news conference held at the Catledge Law Firm in Tupelo. The purpose of the organization is to help indigent defendants in wrongful conviction cases get legal advice, assistance, counseling and funds needed for criminal defense investigation.

“Everyone is subject to make mistakes,” said Jimmie Agnew, vice-president and state coordinator of the newly formed group. “But everyone does not have $10 million as O.J. Simpson did.”

The new group plans to focus its attention in Chickasaw, Lee, Lowndes, Monroe, Pontotoc, Tippah and Union counties. Organizers say they have plans to spread their efforts throughout the state.

The organizations was founded by Howard Gunn and Walter Stanfield, both with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, and Agnew, who works for the Catledge firm.

In November 1995, members started the group after learning about circumstances surrounding a murder case in Monroe County. The person involved in that case has since been acquitted by a jury.

Organizers say they realize that some people should be incarcerated, but say plea bargains and public defenders have landed many African-Americans behind bars because they do not know how the legal system works.

“Many times, the defendant does not see his attorney until the day before the trial,” Agnew said. “That’s not enough time to plan a case.

“Some of these individuals do not know their rights or their alternatives,” Agnew said. “We feel that the justice system has malfunctioned and has caused an alarming number of African-Americans to be sent to (The Department of Corrections).

As of March 30, there were 13,346 inmates in the custody of the state Department of Corrections. Of those, 75 percent were African-Americans, said Ken Jones, spokesman for the prison system.

According to Crime State Rankings 1995, a book published by Morgan Quitno Press, Mississippi has more blacks in local jails per capita than any other state in the union. The book used 1988 figures that had been reported to the U.S. Department of Justice by law enforcement agencies.

For more information about the fund or how to make a donation to it, call 844-6411.

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