Columns » Max Brantley

Singing the Delta blues

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An unprecedented strike force of more than 700 law officers swept across the Delta last week to arrest 70 people indicted for drug dealing and public corruption.

Key targets of Operation Delta Blues were Lee and Phillips County, particularly the latter, where five Helena-West Helena police officers were indicted for participating in drug running and protection schemes.

U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer lamented that long-standing rumors of Delta corruption appeared to be true. Thyer singled out Helena-West Helena Mayor Arnell Willis for coming to him for help recently to clean the city up. This was a little ironic in light of local blog reporting about the records of some people Willis has chosen to assist him in his administration. A two-time felon charged with wife beating was one of his department head picks, for example.

But, based on indictments and information revealed in bond hearings, no one could argue action wasn't in order.

With that in mind, I asked Prosecuting Attorney Fletcher Long of Forrest City, whose district includes Lee and Phillips counties, what he thought of the operation.

"I'm ecstatic about it," he said.

But, I asked, mightn't the sweep and some of the comments reflect poorly on local law enforcement?

"I don't see it that way," Long. "They have the wherewithal that I don't have, for sure." And then he ranged into the racially-tinged psychodrama that is the Delta.

"They also have another advantage. They can take people into a venue where they won't have friends on the jury."

Long means that a thug arrested in Helena-West Helena will be tried there. "The defendants may not be neighbors or friends of the jurors, but they know somebody who knows somebody," Long said. "After they reach a verdict they have to go back out and live in that community."

Federal prosecutors may have to try cases in the courthouse in Helena-West Helena, but Long notes that jurors will be drawn from the entire Eastern District of Arkansas, not just Phillips County.

Is Long's comment on juries the bigotry of low expectations or merely a realistic recognition of a community sometimes not kindly disposed to authority? It is also not an excuse, but a fact, that the hopeless and the impoverished in economic disaster areas might turn to using or selling drugs.

Long said he'd had his share of "bitter experiences" with hometown juries. He recalled a case about alleged school board corruption in Helena. "We did a thorough investigation. We tried the two best cases. It took the jury 45 minutes to acquit," Long recalled.

Then there's the case of Curtis Vance, the convicted killer of TV anchor Anne Pressly, who stood trial later in Marianna for rape. The very DNA evidence that convicted him in Pressly's slaying didn't wholly move a jury in Marianna. It hung – divided on racial lines.

More than the feds' presence is necessary to restore faith in the justice system in the Delta. The community is going to have to pitch in, too.

Long said he took no offense at not being invited to the feds' huge press conference. "I'd just as soon it be that way," he said. "If something had happened, I wouldn't want to be suspected of tipping someone off."

"As long as the job gets done and as long as the results are good, I don't care who does it."

He defended his office's work. "I don't know of a single deputy prosecutor that has a single thing he wouldn't be more than glad to lay out on the table for anyone to look at."

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