An impulsive trip last Monday, July 18 to the Pike County Courthouse in Magnolia turned out to be something of a throwback to the 1980s, when I regularly went there to cover circuit court trials.
County government activity is about the same as before. But a lot has changed in and around the courthouse.
The biggest difference is the courthouse annex building south of the courthouse, which has been open since 1998 – 25 years ago, which surprised me. It houses the chancery clerk’s office, a courtroom and the supervisors’ meeting room.
“At the time,” this lot housed the sheriff’s department in a double-wide trailer and the county jail, where the big news was always angry inmates clogging the sewers. These operations moved 30 years ago to the industrial park along Highway 51.
Another big difference was accessing the audience hall from the second floor of the main building. Access was never a problem in the 1980s. I went upstairs and walked in. But not Monday.
I had learned the day before that the arrest of lawyer Robert Lenoir was scheduled for Monday at 1 p.m. I wrote an email to the press team about it, but we were all busy that morning with the McComb shooting and other work, and we didn’t discuss coverage plans. .
Around 12:30 that afternoon, I decided to go to the arraignment just in case. Passing through a metal detector on the first floor — in place since 2005 — a guard told me I couldn’t get my cell phone upstairs. So I want to thank the nice lady from the constituency clerk’s office who kept it for me.
It turned out that the hometown newspaper had a double cover. I was in the courtroom for five minutes before I noticed editor Mack Spencer sitting two rows in front of me. Good for him. But I stayed out of curiosity, and also because I like audiences.
There weren’t many people, maybe 25 or so. Several of them belonged to the family of Wendy Dansby, the woman who died last year in Lenoir’s house. And Tom Garmon, who runs the Hattiesburg Patriot website, was streaming the hearing live on the internet.
He told me he had to get permission from the Mississippi Supreme Court to do so. One day soon, our website will do that too.
The arrest lasted about half an hour, and it went pretty well for Lenoir. Judge Al Johnson agreed to let him continue living in Winnsboro, Louisiana, while awaiting trial in November.
Lenoir’s young daughter and her mother can also stay with him, but Johnson told Lenoir not to be alone with the child because two of the seven charges against him involve treatment for him.
I also had the chance to say hello to people I have known for a long time but rarely see.
Ronnie Whittington is one of Lenoir’s defense attorneys. Assistant Circuit Clerk Brenda Williams was extremely helpful with the names of attorneys for both sides. Victim Assistance Coordinator Jamie Murrell, who was there with the Dansby family, reminded me of a column I wrote in 2013, when she brought a sexual assault victim to the newspaper to tell her story. story.
That’s what I liked the most about the circuit court: the people. Although the inevitable trials and the drama of sentencing were always a good thing.
Circuit Judge Joe Pigott, District Attorney Dunn Lampton and Circuit Clerk Glen Fortenberry were extremely patient with a curious but young and inexperienced reporter. Most of the lawyers and law enforcement officers were also very helpful.
Judge Pigott could really tell stories, and the one that stood out to me was that the state’s traveling electric chair was set up in the center of the courthouse’s criss-crossing corridors for executions.
Once, he said, a convicted murderer was on the verge of death. Tied to the chair, Pigott said the man had professed his innocence – and added dramatically that the real killer was in the crowd that day. Years later, the judge added, a man on his deathbed allegedly confessed to the crime.
The Circuit Court was less hectic in the 1980s. It only took place twice a year, several weeks each time. Today is all year and there are two judges, which is a sign that more people are misbehaving. Ernest Herndon has done a masterful job of covering the ground for three decades far better than I ever could have done.
But visiting one of my old haunts brought back fond memories. I look more fondly at these moments as their distance increases.