Update: 11/10/97

No Clout, No Jury

Those of you who have followed the "train deaths" story are no doubt wondering why regular updates have not been forthcoming. Linda and I have been engaged in the tedious task of sifting through thousands of pages of interviews, investigators' notes, police reports, and documents in preparation for depositions we hope to begin by the first of the year. We are confident that we will expose the state police investigation as nothing short of a blatantly deliberate cover-up. We have been locating and interviewing witnesses whose lives could be in jeopardy until we can preserve their testimonies. This can be done only in a proceeding where the opposing party has the opportunity to cross-exam, such as in depositions, court hearings, or trials. We are simply not going to be able to talk about witnesses until their testimony is safeguarded.

Our investigation has been hindered, because I have been distracted for the last several months with a personal battle. I don't talk about it much, because I don't like to sound whiny, but the law suit I have been battling since 1990 has been overwhelming lately. It has turned out to be a glaring example of the injustices in our civil court system, an extension of the corruption in our criminal court system, and a detriment to our progress in the "train deaths" case. It is, of course, all tied together.

When Dan Harmon was at the peak of his popularity, winning his bid as our district's prosecutor by a landslide, my drug task force was gathering evidence of the illegal and corrupt activities of Harmon and other public officials. I am still amazed at the influence Harmon wielded with the media, other attorneys, and most public officials when he launched a smear campaign to bring down my task force and me.

We did not go down easily though, and no holds were barred when Harmon accused me of unethical conduct, of misspending and stealing federal funds, of making illegal arrests, of having extra-marital affairs, of abusing my children, and of being insane. Most anything Harmon said was reported by the media, but the most devastating publicity came from a $500,000 law suit trumped up by Harmon.

I had signed off on a complaint filed by a foreign exchange student who accused a former host parent of stealing from her. The complaint was valid and my signature was part of my duty as a prosecutor. A warrant was issued by a judge, the accused was arrested in Hot Springs, and a bondsman at the jail, pretending to be a deputy sheriff arranged for her release. When the sheriff learned of the fraudulent release, he had the subject rearrested. I had NOTHING to do with the subject's rearrest, but a task force officer I fired for gross incompetence went to Harmon and told him I ordered her rearrest. Harmon contacted the subject, talked her into filing a law suit against me, and arranged for attorney-buddy Robert Newcomb to represent her.

The suit had no truthful basis, but by the time it was filed, I had been so discredited that no attorney wanted to touch me, including the Attorney General who is supposed to represent prosecutors from just such suits. I ended up with a Little Rock attorney by the name of Jack Lavey who turned out to be a disaster. He allowed the case to drag on for six years while bilking me out of $26,000.

During the deposition faze of the case, Newcomb admitted that Harmon was calling the shots., but Lavey refused to tell the judge and the jury was not allowed to hear evidence that Harmon and a disgruntled ex-employee fabricated the story. The trail ended in a hung jury, and Lavey withdrew as my attorney when I insisted on hiring co-counsel for the next trial.

I then had to hire another attorney to prepare my case from the beginning. In the mean time, Lavey billed me for another $13,000, which I refused to pay since I had to come up with $12,000 to get another attorney started on the case.

Just before jury selection of the next trial, Newcomb offered to settle for $3,000. (With Lavey in charge, the least Newcomb offered to settle for was $25,000.) It distressed me to accept, but it was by far the cheapest way out. Lavey had botched the first trial which negated any possibility of suing Newcomb for filing a frivolous suit, and it would cost me much more than $3,000 to go through two days of another trial. My husband encouraged me to cut our loses and get the suit behind us. I agreed.

But the suit wasn't behind us. Lavey sued me for the $13,000 he claimed I still owed. I hired another attorney to defend that suit and to counter-sue Lavey for malpractice. I ordered the tapes of the Lavey trial and was confident that all a jury needed to hear was excerpts of Lavey's rantings and how he refused to develop Harmon's roll. I still believe a jury would have easily found in my favor, but I was not allowed to have a jury trial.

Lavey had hired two Little Rock attorneys with strong political clout to represent him, and Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled in their favor on every motion. Even before the trial began, I knew what the outcome would be regardless of the strength of my evidence against Lavey. The judge was predisposed to rule for Lavey or he would have gladly let a jury hear the case. Why would any judge take a chance on having to rule against two attorneys with political clout? The answer is; he wouldn't and Piazza had no intentions of doing so nor letting a jury have the opportunity to do so.

Piazza not only ruled in favor of Lavey, he has ordered me to pay another $40,000 in fees to Lavey and his attorneys. The obvious question is; can't I appeal? Of course I can, and would likely win, since I was denied my right to a jury trial, but appeals cost money. Then I would have to pay for another trial, Piazza would be the presiding judge, and I would likely not be much better off. Anyone who doesn't know the power of a judge to influence a jury hasn't been on the receiving end of a judge's ill will.

I would like to find a way to get out from under the financial and emotional burden of a law suit that should never have been allowed to get passed the pleading stage, but I am most frustrated because of the time and energy it takes away from investigating Kevin and Don's murders. I do promise, however, that it is a mere obstacle to overcome and is not a permanent road block. I will be reporting again soon.

Jean Duffey
You may contact Linda Ives at: linda@idfiles.com

end update - 11/10/97