Arkansas court halts grand jury probe of West Memphis shooting death - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Arkansas court halts grand jury probe of West Memphis shooting death

By ANDREW DeMILLO
Associated Press Writer

A judge's order calling a grand jury to investigate the police shooting of a 12-year-old black child in West Memphis has been temporarily halted as Arkansas' highest court reviews a prosecutor's objection that it could cause irreparable harm.

Meanwhile, the Crittenden County deputy coroner asked Wednesday to file an amicus brief with the court on behalf of Crittenden County Circuit Court Judge Victor L. Hill's order for a grand jury investigation into DeAunta Farrow's death.

The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a temporary stay Friday of Hill's order. Hill called for the grand jury investigation after a special prosecutor declined to file criminal charges in the shooting.

West Memphis police Sgt. Erik Sammis, a white officer on a stakeout, shot DeAunta as the boy played near an apartment complex June 22. An Arkansas State Police investigation into the shooting concluded Sammis shot DeAunta because the boy held a toy version of a semiautomatic pistol in the darkened parking lot. DeAunta's family disputed that, saying the boy held a bag of chips and a soda at the time of the shooting.

The Justice Department later said that DeAunta's rights weren't "willfully abused" in the shooting and declined to pursue federal charges. Special Prosecutor H.G. Foster announced in November there would be no state criminal charges in the shooting, which he called a "tragedy."

DeAunta's parents have filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit seeking more than $100 million from the city of West Memphis and the police officers involved.

Foster asked the court last week to halt the grand jury investigation and warned Hill's order could cause "immediate and irreparable harm," noting its focus on race.

"That with all proper respect and deference to Hon. Judge Hill, the order signed appears to actually state a racial basis for the call of the grand jury and that this could prove a further fatal defect to any action taken," Foster wrote.

Hill asked the court Monday to dissolve its stay and said he believed there was a disparity in how blacks and whites were being treated in the county.

"It is of a type, and to a degree that the integrity of the justice system is being compromised," Hill wrote. "If the petitioners can suggest to me how I can address racial disparities without mentioning race, I would be curious to hear it."

Foster and Hill did not immediately return calls Wednesday. The one-page order by the court did not explain the reason for the stay.

Friday, the six black members of the West Memphis City Council signed a letter supporting Hill's push for a grand jury. The council's four white members did not sign the letter.

Deputy Crittenden County Coroner Hubert Bass, a former West Memphis alderman, asked the court Wednesday to allow him and West Memphis resident Wendol Lee to file a brief supporting Hill's grand jury order.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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