Jury could render verdict today in Hardy v. Tupelo

ABERDEEN – Closing arguments likely will begin late this morning in former Tupelo Police Capt. Cliff Hardy’s lawsuit against the city.
The federal case is based on Hardy’s contentions the city violated his rights to free speech and protections against employment retaliation after he publicly made accusations in October 2006 that his friend and colleague, then-Deputy Chief Robert Hall, was being “persecuted” because of his race.
But most of the three days of testimony have focused on how Hall was treated after he released a hit-and-run suspect three years ago.
The jury of four men and four woman could begin deliberations before lunchtime.
Wednesday, Tupelo Police Chief Harold Chaffin said he didn’t stop Hall from releasing the suspect, despite knowing it was about to happen.
Chaffin told jurors in the U.S. District Court that he simply suggested that Hall not release Jamison Shells after a May 28, 2006, accident.
“My statement was, ‘You don’t need to get involved in this,’” Chaffin said he told Hall in a phone call, adding that it was not an order.
A state investigation found Hall’s actions questionable but not illegal, and Chaffin demoted Hall.
Ultimately, Hall was suspended, indicted, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and resigned from Tupelo PD.
Just a few weeks after Hardy’s speech, he was removed from his internal affairs job. Months later his other responsibilities were taken away and he was transferred to head a two-man uniformed patrol program for apartments and housing authorities.
That’s when Hardy decided to retire, suffering from depression and anxiety from constant fear for his job and life.
In court testimony, several police officers gave much the same story in the city’s defense.
* They came to work the day after Hardy’s speech.
* They heard officers talking about concerns that Hardy, as internal affairs officer, might not “give them a fair shake” with investigations from citizen complaints after he spoke so critically of the department and its treatment of Hall.
* If Hardy had been threatened by other officers, they would have done something about it.
* None could or would identify who voiced the concerns.
At a crucial point in the trial, which began Monday, Judge Sharion Aycock denied the city’s motion to throw out the case.
However, Aycock said Hardy’s attorneys, Jim Waide and Shane McLaughlin, had presented sufficient evidence “for a reasonable jury” to conclude Hardy had been retaliated against and that his rights to make his speech were protected under the First Amendment.
What the jury thinks could come before the day is over.
Late in the day, city attorney Berk Huskison called Chaffin back to the stand to talk about police procedures, especially a 19-year-old prohibition against officers making public criticism of the department.
Hardy’s attorney Waide asked Chaffin about “officer discretion” and “professional courtesy” – two terms referring to officers’ ability to decide whether to arrest or release suspects and whether to write or dismiss tickets.
Chaffin said the department has no rules on the practices and that each officer makes those decisions on a case-by-case basis. The chief denied that Hall’s decision to release Shells was comparable to Chaffin’s role in getting a speeding ticket dismissed for District Attorney John Young a few years ago.
“That’s comparing apples to oranges,” Chaffin said, adding that Young was on official business when he was pulled over.
Young presented evidence against Hall at the Grand Jury of Lee County in late 2006. The grand jury indicted Hall on three felony charges: obstruction of justice, accessory after the fact and perjury.
Waide then grilled Tupelo Police Capt. D.C. Washington about an incident in which Washington also released a suspect. The 2004 event involved a high-profile businessman’s son accused of beating a police officer. Washington took the suspect to a mental health facility.
Washington said it’s not improper for an officer to release his own suspect, but it would be improper to release one that was already jailed by a colleague. Hall had Shells released after he’d been taken to jail by another officer.
And no one on the witness stand said they could recall an officer – except Hall – who was criminally charged for having used discretion in releasing a suspect.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com. Also read Emily’s blog, The Government Grind, at www.NEMS360.com.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com. Read Patsy’s blog, From the Front Row, at www.NEMS360.com.

Emily Le Coz and Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal