There’s no polite way to put it: the Attorney General’s Office blew it.
In negotiating a plea deal that gave a 15-year prison sentence to a man who killed an employee of Shelby County Government, burned his body with diesel and put whatever was left in junk cars that were crushed, prosecutors shot a hole in their image as fighters on the front line against crime.
And along the way, the case has raised dozens of question, notably one suggesting that the reality of Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ much-ballyhooed “No Deals” program may not live up to its rhetoric.
No Deal Becomes No Contest
Worst of all, the attorney general’s office didn’t even get a guilty plea out of the controversy. The defendant pleaded no contest to second degree murder for murdering Mickey Wright, a Memphis and Shelby County code inspector.
To layer on even more intrigue, the rush to judgment by The Commercial Appeal’s editorial gave credence to prosecutors office’s boasts that they can get whatever they want from the newspaper’s editorial board.
Meanwhile, within the newspaper, the editorial inspired retellings of Attorney General Gibbons’ call to editor Chris Peck a few weeks ago when CA columnist Wendi Thomas gave the prosecutor a trip to the woodshed in connection with his culpability for our lawless strip club culture.
Place Your Bets
Within the ranks of the working reporters, the state prosecutor’s office has long been the subject of sarcastic asides, particularly as it relates to the thin skin of Mr. Gibbons himself. As soon as Ms. Thomas’ column was published, some reporters set up a pool to pay whoever could come closest to guessing how long it would take Mr. Gibbons to call Mr. Peck with his latest complaint. The guesses were in hours, not days.
It is commonly accepted at the newspaper by reporters that Mr. Gibbons is a complainer, but reportedly his call to Mr. Peck was more histrionic than normal, demanding that action be taken against Ms. Thomas for doing precisely what columnists do – express their opinions.
But all of that is merely backdrop to the explosion that occurred Friday when the D.A.’s office agreed to a 15-year murder sentence in a case that prosecutors presumed to be a hate crime. In the end, it was an incredible turn of events for a prosecutor’s office that has invested so much in its macho “tough on crime” persona.
Low Threshold For Shock
Making it even more unexpected was that the case was before Criminal Court Judge Fred Axley, who had the power under state law to refuse the plea bargain unless, in his words, “it shocks the conscience of the court.” While defense attorney complains that Criminal Court Judge Axley was a “prosecutor’s judge” have been large dismissed as sentence envy, it’s a reputation that has new currency with his concurrence in the 15-year deal.
All in all, it left the family with a feeling that had become all too familiar for them, the feeling that they were once again abandoned by the system that could deliver the justice that would give them closure after their six years of hell.
Family members thought finally the worst was over. They had endured long lapses in information after the burst of initial concern from county officials. In time, the family’s calls were returned slower and slower and updates on the case became fewer and fewer.
It’s a strange phenomenon, but nevertheless a reality, of the criminal justice system that murdered victims often become just names on a page and families left behind sometimes become seen as nuisances.
Sadly, that’s what happened to Mrs. Frances Wright, widow of the building code enforcement officer that vanished in April, 2001. Mrs. Wright was persistent in her calls to county administrators and the sheriff’s office, and in time, she became just another insistent, unsatisfied citizen rather than the wife of an fellow employee presumed dead.
As a result, the family’s life became defined by days of scaling the heights of hope and others crashing to the floor of despair. It was 10 days after Mr. Wright’s disappearance that his burned out county truck was found in Mississippi. The next day, his ID badge was found.
From the beginning, Dale V. Mardis was a prime suspect.
Although the family’s faith in the system was shaken by curt responses and less frequent updates, Mrs. Wright continued to plead for any information about her husband, a well-liked member of the Memphis and Shelby County Building Codes Enforcement Department.
He was last seen at the Lamar address of Mardis, a belligerent white man who had told construction code managers not to send a black inspector to his property. As a result of this threat, it appears that prosecutors put all of their evidentiary eggs into the hate crime basket, and when at the 11th hour, two African-Americans appeared to say that Mardis had been a good friend since childhood, the case unraveled.
Without A Net
We can almost hear Mardis saying that some of his best friends are black, but it’s unclear why prosecutors thought the two African-American witnesses for Mardis could not be offset by witnesses telling about his demands to keep black inspectors away from his property.
In a world whose equilibrium is defined in terms of means, motive and opportunity, the attorney general’s office apparently had no fall-back plan. In an office where public relations often seems as important as public safety, no amount of spinning this time could put a pretty face on its decision to sign on to a plea deal based on a conversion rate of 15 years for murder of a public servant.
The best justification that the attorney general’s office could give was to say that the plea bargain required Mardis to disclose what he did with Mr. Wright’s body. It was small consolidation, because from all appearances, the family would have preferred to forego that bit of information in exchange for a trial.
Chapter 2: Tomorrow