Friday, June 13, 1997

Attorneys for 2 others discount Harmon conviction

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

One day after former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon was convicted of five federal felonies, attorneys for two men facing charges that they participated in an illegal racket with Harmon said his conviction will not affect their clients.
"I don't think the verdict in the Harmon case should be viewed as an indication of the strength of the government's case against Mr. Walls," said Jack Lassiter, the Little Rock attorney representing former 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force chief Roger Walls.
Harmon, who served as prosecuting attorney in the 7th Judicial District until July 1996, was indicted in April with Walls and lawyer Bill Murphy for allegedly using the prosecuting attorney's office to operate a racket to obtain drugs and money. Each of the three men also was charged with an array of other felonies, some shared and some separate.
Harmon, tried first, was convicted Wednesday on the joint racketeering charge, three extortion charges and a charge of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute marijuana. On two of the three extortion charges, Harmon was indicted with Walls -- who is scheduled for trial in January 1998 with Murphy.
Harmon was acquitted on six other charges, some of which were also shared with Murphy and Walls.
U.S. Attorney Paula Casey said Thursday that attorneys in her office have not yet analyzed the pattern of convictions and acquittals. She maintained, however, that each trial is distinct and the outcomes of one do not necessarily affect another.
"I know myself from trying cases in the face of mistrials or split verdicts that every trial is different," she said, calling prosecution an "imprecise science."
Murphy and Walls referred all questions to their attorneys Thursday.
North Little Rock lawyer Stuart Vess, representing Murphy, said he would study the Harmon trial carefully -- more for the content than for the outcome.
"I am going to order the transcript of the proceeding and I'm going to discuss it with [Harmon's attorney] Lea Ellen Fowler," Vess said. "I've got until January. ... I plan to be prepared."
Vess did not comment on whether the Harmon verdict could increase the likelihood of a plea agreement for his client.
"There has been talk, but at this point in time, there have been no serious talks about a plea agreement," he said. "While they were charged together, his case stands on its own and our case stands on its own."
As the co-defendants analyze the trial for what it could mean to their cases, several other observers said Thursday that the verdict could represent an opportunity for the 7th Judicial District to get out from under a cloud of suspicion.
"Had the government not had a good enough case to convict him, I think we would have had a substantial problem," said Paul Bosson of Hot Springs, prosecuting attorney for the 18th East Judicial District in Garland County. "I think he may have even run for office again."
Bosson was called to testify in the trial last week as a defense witness but perhaps aided the prosecution when he voiced distrust toward Harmon and the 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force.
"It's been my experience that juries for the most part, they spend a lot of time and they know proof beyond a reasonable doubt when they see it," he said. "If the citizens want to clean up that mess over there [in the 7th District], they have a chance now. Barbara Webb may not be the most experienced prosecutor, but I consider her an honest lady."
Prosecuting Attorney Webb of Benton could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Alexander Police Chief John Brown, who once testified that the drug task force under Harmon's command should be closed down, said he hoped Harmon's conviction wouldn't end the investigation into potential violations of the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations act.
"I sure hope that they are not through with the RICO investigation," Brown said. "In every RICO, there's a lot of players."
Brown said he could not see any way in which the prosecutions of Walls and Murphy would be unaffected by Harmon's convictions. He agreed with Bosson that the conviction represents an opportunity for the current leaders of the 7th Judicial District.
"There's a lot of work for the 7th District to do, simply because there's been this dark cloud over it for so long," he said.

Copyright 1997, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.