Hed: Judicial watchdog group recommends fine, reprimand
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Circuit Judge Frank Russell of Tupelo should be fined $1,500 and publicly reprimanded for granting four felons early release from prison, according to the state’s judicial watchdog agency.
It will be up to the Mississippi Supreme Court to decide if the fine and the public reprimand are the appropriate penalties for Russell, a circuit judge in Northeast Mississippi since 1984. A public reprimand would result in the episode being published in a legal journal.
The Supreme Court could agree with the ruling released Wednesday by the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, or it could increase or decrease the penalties.
In papers released Wednesday, the commission said it had “clearly found ethical violations by Judge Russell.” The commission also “finds that significant disciplinary action is required in light of the nature and effect of his action.”
Russell was cited by the judicial performance commission for releasing four felons before their sentences had been served. All four were convicted in the 1st District.
In papers released by the judicial performance commission, Russell contended he thought he was acting within his scope as a circuit judge. Russell could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
While Russell said he was acting under his authority as a judge, the commission said, “In light of these cases, Judge Russell clearly should have known he had no authority to release a felon unless there was a statute specifically authorizing him to do so. He had a duty to know precisely what his authority was before ordering the release of a felon.”
The felons in question were: Royce Kemp, who was sentenced to life in prison on a murder charge in 1976; Jeff Bonds, who was sentenced on a burglary charge in 1994; Chester Shook, who was sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary in November 1993; and Daniel Parham, who was sentenced for manslaughter in 1993.
At least two of the felons – Kemp and Bonds – had been convicted of previous crimes.
According to commission records, Russell cited Bonds’ “highly valuable services to the county” in dealing with the ice storm of 1994 as one reason for granting his release. Bonds was in the Lee County Jail awaiting transportation to Parchman Penitentiary when the ice storm hit. The Lee County supervisors and sheriff praised Bonds’ service in helping the county during the ice storm.
“But this does not justify a circuit judge releasing him when under the facts he clearly did not have authority to do so,” the commission wrote.
While the agency’s investigation of Russell was ongoing, the judge filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance is unconstitutional.
Before being elected to the circuit judge post, Russell served as Itawamba County prosecutor and Fulton city judge.
The next election for circuit judges is scheduled for 1998.