Retired Circuit Judge Gordon Webb of Harrison will return to the bench in Baxter County to help deal with a backlog of cases set for jury trials.
The request for Judge Webb to put on his robe once again came from Circuit Judge John Putman.
In a letter to the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Judge Putman wrote that court dockets in the 14th Judicial District were “extremely congested with hundreds of cases awaiting jury trial.” He said a special judge would enable more criminal jury trials to be set and disposed of than is currently possible.
The Arkansas Supreme Court made Judge Webb’s assignment on September 7 under its superintending authority over lower courts in the state.
The cases on which Judge Webb will preside are in Baxter, Boone and Marion Counties. No cases were assigned from the Newton County Circuit Court.
The COVID-19 pandemic restricted the operation of courts in the state. As COVID-19 spread, courts were forced to utilize alternate means of moving cases through the system.
For a time, no face-to-face contact was allowed, forcing judges, lawyers and defendants to appear by way of video conferencing from different sites.
Jury trials were prohibited until recently and even when courts were permitted to bring prospective jurors in, a new normal had to be imposed.
One major hurdle was finding a place spacious enough to accommodate a large number of prospective jurors while allowing for recommended “social distancing.”
Two venues were used in Baxter County the educational building at the fairgrounds and the Vada Sheid Community Development Center at Arkansas State University-Mountain Home.
Once a jury was chosen in the larger venues, the proceedings moved to the court complex.
A trial was held in the main courtroom of the court complex in August, but jurors sat in a space normally occupied by the audience so they could spread out.
So gradually, court operations are beginning to return to near normal.
But, the COVID-19 restrictions have caused a substantial backlog of cases needing to go before a jury.
Baxter County, for example, has 10 murder cases waiting to go before a jury.
Judge Webb is assigned to 20 cases throughout the 14th Judicial District six in Baxter County, ten in Boone and four in Marion.
In Baxter County, he will hear the cases of Savannah Wren, Baxter Stowers, James Davis, Jeffery Shepherd, Bradley Uren and Roger Hicks, Jr.
-Wren is charged with killing 19-year-old Chaseton Lewter in November last year.
-Stowers faces allegations he shot and killed Jeremy Wayne Alman in early October last year. He was 18-years-old at the time of the incident.
-Davis is accused of shooting 20-year-old Tyler Wade Picket to death in late June 2019.
-Shepherd is also charged in the Pickett murder.
-Uren and Hicks both have rape charges pending.
Judge Webb first served as prosecuting attorney in the 14th Judicial District for 24 years. He was elected circuit judge in 2002.
In all, Judge Webb had put in 42 years of public service at the time of his retirement.
Judge Webb also served as chairman of the Arkansas State Sentencing Commission and presided over sessions of the Drug Court Program.
14th Judicial District Prosecutor David Ethredge said Webb’s appointment “will go a long way in helping us deal with the case backlog.”
He said most of the 20 cases assigned to Webb “are ones that will take the longest to try, and that will be what helps the most.”
Ethredge said some cases could be tried in a day “while a murder trial could take more than a week.”
It is very fortunate, Ethredge said, that “Judge Webb is so familiar with the courts in this district and that means he will need very little time to get up to speed.”
Currently, it is not known when Judge Webb will preside over the first of his assigned cases in Baxter County.
Judge Webb graduated from Wesleyan University in 1969 and received his law degree from Tulane University in 1974.
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