Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley’s office today filed notice in district court that it would not prosecute misdemeanor obstruction charges against state Rep. John Walker, 79, and a legal colleague, Omavi Shukur, 29, filed after Walker angered officers by filming a traffic stop.
At the end of a court session this morning, Deputy Prosecutor Melissa Brown asked that the charges be nolle prossed (not prosecuted) and Erin Cassinelli, sitting as special district judge, granted the motion. She commented that she’d have dismissed it outright. Technically, a nolle prossed case can be revived, though this one isn’t likely to be.
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Police Chief Kenton Buckner had already said he wouldn’t press the charge against Walker and sent a letter of apology. But he said he intended to press the obstruction of governmental operations charge against Shukur (whom the police identified as Kushukuru), who was arrested after he arrived at the scene and walked between a police car and a car that had been stopped for not having a license plate. The driver of that car had already been arrested and placed in a police cruiser and officers were deciding what to do about other passengers in the stopped car. One had a warrant for failure to pay a traffic ticket.
Walker stopped when he saw a number of police surrounding a car at Ninth and Commerce by the Arkansas Arts Center. Video released by police shows that he began filming from across the street. Two white police officers walked across the street and asked him what he was doing. Their anger escalated, with one eventually accusing Walker of being a race baiter and trying to provoke trouble. Walker remained calm. Later, his colleague arrived and a dash camera shows that Shukur walked between two cars. An officer remonstrated him from interfering with the traffic stop. He protested that he was not interfering and was quickly arrested. Walker, meanwhile, had walked across the street and around the front of the car that had been stopped. He shortly was arrested, too, by the officer who’d called him a race baiter, though he protested he wasn’t obstructing anything.
Shukur was scheduled for a court appearance Monday morning. But Jegley moved today to drop the cases officially.
Walker was well-known to officers, who could be heard complaining in the video that he’d been a “thorn in the side” of police. He’s a civil rights lawyer and he told police he was always interested in the amount of police manpower devoted to arrests of black males, particularly in light of police use of deadly force in some cases. Two veteran officers, Jason Roberts and Thomas Thompson, argued with Walker about his presence before the arrests.
Jegley, who I called after I heard of the court action, said he and three other attorneys had reviewed the videos and the incident reports and “concluded that in good faith we could not go forward. and prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of obstruction of governmental operations.”
“I’ll also say that Chief Kenton Buckner wants to use this as a learning and a teaching moment and I support him in that.”
Jegley said officers who are trained to “de-escalate” situations had escalated it by going across the street to challenge Walker. He also said the evidence couldn’t sustain a charge against Shukur.
The statute provides for conviction, he said, that someone “knowingly obstructs, impairs or hinders performance of any governmental function.” The prime target of the traffic stop had already been arrested and placed in a patrol car. Shukur walked in front of the patrol car, hesitated briefly, then moved to the west sidewalk, Jegley noted. He said he wasn’t sure officers had justification in ordering Walker and Shukur to the east rather than the west side of the street.
He added that the definition of “knowingly” in the statute requires that an offender be “practically certain” of the results his action might cause.
Jegley acknowledged that the chief wanted to support officers. But he said, “They’re not the judge, jury and executioners. I decide whether the case goes forward or not.”
He said he expected he’d endure some criticism from police, with whom he said he enjoys good relations in the course of prosecuting hundreds of cases a year. But he’s also sparked some tension by prosecution of a former Little Rock cop, Josh Hastings, for killing a car burglary suspect. Two trials ended with hung juries and Jegley didn’t retry the case a third time.
Jegley said he’d inform City Manager Bruce Moore of his decision.
Chief Buckner responded tersely by e-mail: “We are very disappointed in the decision, but we respect the decision of the Prosecutor’s office.”
Tommy Hudson, president of the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, learned of the decision from me. “I think the best course is not to make a comment. I’ll talk to the officers and see where they’re at.” He added they’d likely disagree. But he said he had “a lot of respect for Larry and sometimes we’re going to agree to disagree.” Hudson noted an internal investigation of the episode would continue at the department and it would be instructive.
Walker has rejected the city apology for his arrest and was unhappy about the police desire to continue to prosecute Shukur. He and Shukur plan a news conference this afternoon.
WORTH SHARING: A note Republican JP Phil Stowers sent to his colleagues on the Pulaski County Quorum Court and to Jegley:
Dear Mr. Jegley,
As a citizen of the 6th Judicial District of Arkansas, I appreciate and applaud the sound rationale and reasoning you applied concerning your decision not to prosecute Mr. Shukur.
Thank you for your many years of service and commitment to truth and justice for ALL.
Jegley responded to Stowers:
Thank you. As someone wiser than me once said, “My country, right or wrong: when right, to keep it right; when wrong, to set it right.” Our police have a tough job, and I know it better than most. Human interactions, however, can get complicated and mistakes are sometimes made. Shame on us if we refuse to learn and grow better from our missteps.