LITTLE ROCK — Simmering racial divisions and fears in West Memphis came
to a boil with the police shooting of a 12-year-old black child this
summer, a local judge says, forcing him to impanel a civil grand jury
to investigate the death.
Crittenden County, Ark., Circuit Court Judge Victor L. Hill’s order for a grand jury investigation into DeAuntae Farrow’s death comes after a special prosecutor declined to file criminal charges in the shooting. Hill stressed not only the need for “maintaining the appearance of fairness,” but also his own racial experiences as the area’s sole black judge in calling for a formal investigation in the town across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn.
“From any objective view of the manner in which justice has been dispensed in Crittenden County, there is reason for the public’s confidence in the justice system to be shaken,” Hill wrote in an order dated Nov. 26.
West Memphis police Sgt. Erik Sammis, a white officer on a stakeout, shot DeAuntae as he played near an apartment complex June 22. An Arkansas State Police investigation into the shooting concluded Sammis shot DeAuntae because the boy held a toy version of a semiautomatic pistol in the darkened parking lot. DeAuntae’s family disputed that, saying the boy held a bag of chips and a soda at the time of the shooting.
The Justice Department later said that DeAuntae’s rights weren’t “willfully abused” in the shooting and declined to pursue federal charges. Special Prosecutor H.G. Foster announced last month there would be no state criminal charges in the shooting, which he called a “tragedy.”
DeAuntae’s parents have filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit seeking more than $100 million from the city of West Memphis and the police officers involved.
In his order, Hill called for a civil jury scheduled to form Dec. 10 to look into the case and asked Foster to present his evidence if he’s available.
Hill said the reasons for a jury investigation were several-fold, including maintaining the public’s trust in its legal system. In a footnote, Hill mentioned the death of Leo Cavallaro Jr., who was beaten by a former Edmondson, Ark., police officer near West Memphis. The officer later was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In that case, Hill said, the officer went to trial twice before he was convicted.
“The life of the young black citizen is no less valuable than that of that of the white citizen who died following an altercation with a police officer,” Hill wrote. “Our system should tolerate not even the least suggestion that it is so.”
Hill, who noted on his order’s first page he is the only black judge serving in Arkansas’ Second Judicial Circuit, cited his own life as reason for seeking a grand jury investigation. In his order, Hill attacked West Memphis police Assistant Chief Mike Allen for filing “frivolous and racially motivated complaints” against him.
“Whether deliberately or subconsciously, these, and others like them have sought to make it clear that they have no respect for the rights of blacks,” Hill wrote.
David Stewart, the executive director of the state panel overseeing judicial conduct, said the commission has received 14 complaints about Hill. All have been dismissed without commissioners taking any action.
Hill said his hope is that the grand jury investigation will even the scales.
“There is no question in my mind that the justice system is not ‘fair.’ That does not mean that we should abandon our efforts to make it more so,” Hill wrote, quoting his response to previous judicial complaints against him. “I have no plans to abandon the effort. It doesn’t matter to me that my efforts upset some people. I would suggest to them that they get over it or move someplace where there are no black people.”