by Max Brantley
Nobody organizing the enterprise is responding to my calls or e-mails, but work continues apace on a reality TV show, "Last Shot With Judge Gunn" in which Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn of Fayetteville plans to play a fictional judge doing something along the lines of the TV drug court she once presided over in Fayetteville. Jones TV, a nonprofit, pulled the plug on the broadcasts after a judicial ethics panel condemned the practice of pushing defendants into the TV sessions. Gunn is leaving the bench in June and a TV production company has advertised a syndicated show starring her beginning in the fall.
How would she stock the show? Documents provided me under an FOI request to the Department of Community Correction now show that she plans to draw defendants from the justice system, by direct referrals from another judge (seemingly a problem given the earlier ethics ruling). They will include people under the supervision of the Department of Community Correction, which has previously disclaimed knowledge of the plans.
The scheme now appears to be that Gunn, after she leaves her judgeship, will use her old space in the courthouse to film a TV show on the weekend. She apparently expects to get referrals from other judges. E-mails I received from DCC show she'll hire existing personnel — such as four state probation officers — on a part-time basis to play like they are real court officers. Note that Ricky Hogg, an area deputy director for DCC, informed probation officers May 11 that they'd been "cleared" to participate and would be paid $25 an hour for a minimum of four hours. This was two days before DCC told me they knew nothing about the program. Note that TV producers were "intrigued" that the officers "were armed." Note that supervisor Hogg expresses concern that the officers know drug court, but are not involved in other types of probation and parole. Note that Hogg urged people to be hired to keep quiet about it. Note some conflicts in the notes about whether or not "Little Rock" has signed off on DCC participation.
The documents indicate that DCC employees believe people will be referred by other judges. A note mentions that Circuit Judge William Storey and Judge Michael Fitzhugh of Fort Smith have said defendants could participate in the program. I couldn't reach either to see if that was correct. Of particular interest is a department e-mail explaining how private information not normally open to the general public is expected to be included in the televised proceedings because participants will sign a waiver. Producers apparently hope to capture some film from past Jones TV productions, an aim that might be controversial given the decision to stop the broadcasts and never air a final episode for which special lighting and makeup consultants were employed, apparently to produce a pilot for the syndicated show.
I'd been hearing that people with official roles, such as Gunn's current bailiff, would participate in the TV show. The note seems to bear that out. In addition to mentioning the bailiff, a note from Hogg says that Kim Webber rather than Leslie Borgognoni would be playing a public defender on the show. "I do not know if you know Webber, but she will look much better on the screen," wrote Hogg. "LOL."
All of this seems to me to go to the question of whether defendants might expect special treatment by trading off privacy and other considerations to advance the fake judge's commercial enterprise.
Though denying that DCC is partnering in any way with a commercial venture and putting all responsibility for placement of defendants in the hands of a judge, Department spokeswoman Rhonda Sharp said:
The DCC is of the understanding that the proposed program will have a treatment component.
For many offenders, treatment is the difference between success and failure so if a sitting judge approves of a DCC-supervised offender participating in that treatment it is possible that the offender will participate.
The DCC would be remiss to ignore an opportunity for an offender to receive treatment.
However, the DCC will not be placing offenders on television nor will DCC employees cajole or coerce an offender to appear on television. It is our understanding that offenders can be in the treatment program without appearing on television.
It is also possible that offenders will sign up to appear in the program outside the scope of their DCC supervision. Supervision does not preclude voluntary appearances on television. It would not be the first time that offenders sought out a chance to appear on television.
Gunn has been busily at work while judge making these arrangements for a commercial enterprise. A state agency has been working out ways for its employees to participate, in a realistic fashion, though Sharp insists they will carry no state authority and may participate only with a supervisor's permission.
An awful lot of questions need to be answered about this. It is not confidence-inspiring that the people directly responsible won't come to the telephone and that state employees who are helping out have worked so hard to keep that cooperation secret.