DELAYED JUSTICE: Families of violent crimes upset with slow court process

Updated: Oct. 13, 2022 at 10:00 PM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) – Two mothers are turning the pain of their son’s murders into a purpose to get justice.

For months, Shaquitta Wesson and Regina Wagster have waited for the day the suspect accused in their son’s murders to go to trial.

The process has been drawn out.

“It is taking too long,” Shaquitta Wesson, the mother of Devonte Wesson, said.

20-year-old Devonte Wesson was shot and killed near the Southside Sports Complex in Nov. 2021. The trial for the suspect, Dangelo Lewis, was scheduled to start in March, but it has been pushed back three times.

VIEW HERE: Court documents for Dangelo Lewis

“It took seconds for you to kill somebody. It should take seconds for you to go to jail. It shouldn’t keep getting pushed back,” she said. “It doesn’t take them years to do the crime. It only takes a split second.”

Lewis is out of jail on bond.

The same could be said for the suspect in Wagster’s murder, Logan Heath Murray

“It is a rollercoaster,” Wagster’s mother, Regina, said describing the process leading up to court.

Gavin was shot and killed during the Memorial Day weekend in 2021 at a home near Turfway and Bridlewood Drive in Jonesboro.

Court documents said Murray shot and killed Wagster and when police arrived, the affidavit said Murray was lying beside Wagster, covered in blood.

VIEW HERE: Court documents for Logan Murray

“Someone who murders someone for no reason, in cold blood, or even if there was a reason, they’re a murderer and they get to walk free. It is very angry,” Regina said. “It is not right.”

Murray’s trial was originally set for Aug. 2021, but that day in court would not happen. Court documents state a judge has approved a total of five continuances.

“You build you like, “Okay, court day is coming up and we are going to get some justice here”, and then you hear the defense had another continuance approved, and you have to start that process all over again,” Regina said.

Both mothers want justice sooner rather than later, but for constitutional law experts, sometimes a slower trial is best for the outcome the mothers want.

“The important thing is that you not only get a conviction but when you get one, it sticks,” Dr. Hans Hacker, an associate professor of political science at Arkansas State University said.

Hacker, who has been studying the field of law for decades, was not surprised by the continuances and delays in the trials of Murray and Lewis. He believes sometimes they are necessary for justice to be served and to prevent a higher court from changing a jury’s decision.

“You get a conviction and two years later the Supreme Court of the State of Arkansas overturns that conviction on a technicality,” Hacker said describing the worst-case scenario for the families. “For example, a prosecutor objecting to a continuance that a defense attorney files with the court.”

The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees a speedy trial for the defendant.

It does not apply to the victim or the victim’s families, and the definition of “speedy” is not very well defined.

“The concept of a speedy trial is a fluid one. It does not mean immediate,” Hacker said, “It means given the circumstance a trial is progressing and the defendant is progressing through the legal system.”

In the state of Arkansas, there are no rules for how many continuances a case can have. Each one depends on the merits and is left up to a judge’s discretion.

For weeks, KAIT8 Anchor and Chief Investigative Reporter Chris Carter has called circuit court offices, the office of the Arkansas Supreme Court, and prosecutors to see if anyone keeps a record of how many continuances are issued in the average case.

No one could provide the data, however, data on how many court cases each judicial district is able to clear was able to be provided.

The Second Judicial District, which makes up Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi, and Poinsett County, had the highest number of cases cleared in the state between January 2021 and June 13, 2022.

114% of the cases were closed with either a conviction, a plea, or another means. Not all of those cases were filed during that time period and could have been from previous years.

For Wesson and Wagster, as more time passes since their sons were murdered, they are getting more anxious another delay will happen.

“They say it gets easier, but it doesn’t,” Shaquitta said. “You [are] grieving, but you don’t get that final (sigh), he is behind bars. He got justice and my baby can Rest in Peace.”

“We really feel like it is not only failing us but other families who have children who have been murdered,” Regina said.

Carter did reach out to the Prosecutor in both cases, Martin Lily. His supervisor, Prosecutor Keith Chrestman, would not allow him to talk about court continuances, even if we would not talk specifics.

Court dates for both suspects have been set for the end of November.

In the case of Dangelo Lewis, the trial will begin one year and three days after his mother made the decision to take him off of life support.

The family of Gavin Wagster said they will be in court for the trial of Logan Murray.

When it comes to the issue of violent crime suspects being let out on bond, both mothers feel the suspects in their sons’ murders should still be in jail.

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, who is on the judiciary committee, said discussions are underway right now about reforming bonds in Arkansas.

He could not provide specifics but said it would be brought in the upcoming legislative session.