By Steve Rogers
Unless a judge has a change of heart, it’ll be three more months before an influential Waynesboro, Miss., businessman is sentenced for bashing open his now former-wife’s skull four years ago.
And the 15th continuance in the case is beginning to put statewide attention on everyone from influential State Rep. Jeff Smith to Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens. Some are beginning to ask how a man guilty of such a brutal attack could get what they call “favored” treatment.
Brian Clark pleaded guilty in May to aggravated domestic assault in the September 2013 beating of Hope Imes Clark at their Columbus home. Pictures taken at the time of her injuries showed a deep gash in her skull, other cuts and severe facial bruising.
The 37-year-old Clark was scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 10 but two days before that date, his attorney, Rod Ray, of Columbus, filed a motion seeking a continuance to allow Clark to complete a program for spousal batterers.
Judge Kitchens granted the motion after District Attorney Scott Colom’s office contacted Hope Imes Clark about the continuance and she agreed. Colom wouldn’t comment on the case but did confirm one of his assistants, Lindsey Clemons, who has a reputation for being harsh on domestic violence, spoke with Hope Clark and that she understood and agreed with the continuance. In May, Hope Clark also had been part of the recommendation for treatment, although she also has speculated it might not help, according to court documents.
Ray says he understands the frustration surrounding the case.
“He has accepted responsibility for his crime and pleaded guilty. He is addressing his problems. He is a young man who one day is going to be back in society and we all are better off if he has addressed his problems, understands them,” Ray said, citing other cases that have taken months and sometimes years to make their way through court for a variety of reasons — ranging from procedural delays to mental evaluations to illnesses.
“He’s not trying to get out of it, not trying to hide from it. We are doing what we think is in the best interest of everyone, the victim, the man and society. We didn’t want her to have to go through a trial and relive it,” added Ray, a former assistant district attorney who is one of the region’s best known defense attorneys.
When Clark pleaded guilty in May, his sentencing was delayed at that time until the August date so he could complete the treatment. That program apparently took longer than anticipated.
Clark’s case has been continued 15 times since his original indictment and arraignment in February 2014.
According to a letter from the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, Miss., Clark has completed 10 of the required 24 weekly out-patient sessions in the program. He is to have the remainder completed by November and a new sentencing date was set for Nov. 13.
That’s the first day of the November term of Lowndes County Circuit Court.
Clark faces from two to 20 years in prison.
The only thing that could change that would be Judge Kitchens bringing all the parties in for a hearing and getting everyone to agree in person from the witness stand to the delay. Some courthouse insiders say the attention the case is getting and the focus on the court has Kitchens considering such a move.
Clark’s former wife, who still lives in Columbus, has said in an impassioned victim’s impact statement previously printed in The Packet she wants Kitchens to sentence Clark to prison time because she thinks that’s the only thing that will stop his abuse.
She says since his arrest and indictment in her case, he has abused at least one other woman and had a restraining order taken out against him in 2016 by her in Destin, Fla.
The Florida incident could have been used against Clark had he decided to take the assault on Hope Imes Clark to trial.
Hope Clark says her ex-husband’s troubles in Florida show a pattern and happened despite him having gotten treatment previously.
Clark’s family owns a successful gas and convenience store business in Waynesboro. On one court document, he listed his income as $100,000 a month.
After last week’s continuance, Hope Clark’s uncle, John Younger, took to Facebook to express the family’s mounting frustration. Most of that post, which has been shared numerous times, is included below. It speaks for itself.
“…This makes 15, fifteen total delays that have been agreed upon by the District Attorney’s office and the defense and signed off on by the Judge. This time they tell us that the guy who pled guilty to this crime has not completed his treatment – treatment that was not required by the court but was given as an option for the guilty to take. Let’s see, he plead guilty in May of this year and three months later, he had only completed 10-12 steps of the 24 required. The treatment center he is going to is an out-patient facility. He should have completed the course by now, yet District Attorney Scott Colom has agreed with one of his ADAs to allow him to remain free at least until October, if not Christmas!
“Let’s not forget Judge Jim Kitchens for allowing this travesty of justice to continue, not once, not twice, but fifteen times over the course of the last four years. I have never seen him allow this to happen before I always thought he would make a good Supreme Court Justice.
“Our family needs closure and we need your help – please share this with your Facebook friends and ask them to call their state senators, state representatives, the Governor’s office, the District Attorney’s office, the office of Attorney General Jim Hood and ask for their help! We need a requirement that he be tested for drugs or alcohol. We need to require that he remain within the boundaries of Mississippi. He continues to hunt and fish wherever he wants to – in the Gulf of Mexico on his boat or flying around in his plane around the country. He was allowed to remain free on his original $20,000 bail. He even lied to the court and swore that he had no money so a counsel was appointed for him by the State of Mississippi. The good citizens of Lowndes County paid for this. He neglected to tell you that he was making $100,000.00 a month from his family’s company.
“People – after four long years, this needs to end! Please help!. I’m glad my Mother did not have to live thru this. She passed away one year after this happened, but she did see the horrific photos of what he did.
“My now five and fourteen year old nephews were in the house that terrible night. My niece even wrote on her victim’s impact statement that her oldest son was in the next room in the corner holding a baseball bat thinking he would be next after his mother!
“This is a travesty,” John Younger concluded.
Many cite Clark’s influential ties as one of the reasons for his treatment.
He is the nephew of Don Clark, the CEO of one of the state’s most powerful law firms, Butler Snow.
On one of the continuances — February of this year — state Rep. Smith filed paperwork in court saying he had joined Clark’s defense team and they needed a continuance from February because Smith was tied up in the Legislature.
The veteran lawmaker is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and close friends with some members of the Butler Snow firm. In fact, Smith’s daughter is a lawyer with the firm.
Butler Snow contacted Smith about getting involved.
As it turned out, a murder trial bumped the Clark case from the February court docket.
Courthouse officials say they can’t remember the last time Jeff Smith ever was involved in a criminal case. Some of those same people said Rod Ray’s wife encouraged him not to take the case because of the injuries it involved.
State Rep. Jay Hughes, a Democrat from Oxford who does not profess to be a Jeff Smith fan, was harsh on his Facebook post.
“Domestic abuse? This is what it looks like on the skull of a mom of 2 But, if you have lawyers in the right places in MS, including one in leadership in the legislature, you are still free after several years, fifteen continuances and pleading guilty. Connections sure make a difference here. Lowndes County Judge let’s him go to anger counseling when your friend or family would go to jail. Enough!!! This is not domestic violence, it is aggravated assault. Stop the cronyism in MS.,” Hughes wrote.