Judicial commissioner suspended, resigns job

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

A Marshall County court officer with authority to set bond in lieu of defendants' confinement in jail was last week charged with assaulting an inmate and the now-former judicial commissioner was set to appear in his former employer's courtroom.

Donnell Kelly, 64, of Liberty Avenue, was cited by Marshall County Sheriff's Detective Chad Bass who reported investigating an assault in the booking room of the county jail where he was informed that the "magistrate (Kelly) had struck an inmate in the face, causing him to bleed." Kelly was released on his own recognizance.

"A warrant for assault was sworn out and signed by Judge Lee Bussart-Bowles," Bass reported. "The court date was set for Feb. 28..." a normal Tuesday for Marshall County General Sessions Court.

When contacted by telephone on Friday, Kelly acknowledged that this case presents "very unusual circumstances," and he said, "I shouldn't comment on any details on this. It wouldn't be appropriate."

Furthermore, "I have not seen the report and have no idea what's in it," Kelly said, accepting an offer to be shown the report.

Since judicial commissioners, also known as magistrates, are appointed by the sessions court judge, Bussart-Bowles was asked about what happened.

Kelly was suspended Jan. 22 and he tendered his resignation the next day, she said, noting that Kelly was appointed by her predecessor, retired Judge Steve Bowden. Bussart-Bowles thanked Circuit Court Clerk Elinor Brandon Foster and Circuit Court Deputy Clerk Patty Fagan "for their assistance in filling the vacancy on a temporary basis."

The position of judicial commissioner will be advertised, Bussart-Bowles said, "affording equal employment opportunity to all interested applicants."

Kelly clarified circumstances by describing the following chain of events.

When told he was suspended, Kelly replied verbally that he resigned as of that moment, he said. Bussart-Bowles responded by suggesting that he think about his decision.

Kelly said he didn't feel as though he needed to think any more about his decision.

Bussart-Bowles called him the next day, and he replied that he'd not changed his mind, he said in a telephone interview. He then delivered a letter of resignation that Monday.

"Apparently she wanted it in writing," Kelly said. "There was no question in my mind," he said to emphasize that he was not confused about the situation.

Kelly also emphasized that he was not admitting he was in the wrong, nor was he dismissed; rather, he resigned.

The inmate Kelly allegedly struck is Billy Wayne Vestal, 64, of 5th Avenue North, who'd been charged in a warrant sought by Lewisburg Police Patrolman Clyde Ragsdale and signed by Kelly for the alleged aggravated assault of a woman identified as Phyllis Martin. She's quoted by Ragsdale as saying Vestal threatened to kill her by cutting her throat. Vestal is quoted by Ragsdale as saying he pulled a knife on the woman. Ragsdale named two witnesses, Beverly Meeks and Danny Little Jr., who saw Vestal put a knife to Martin's throat.

Vestal was originally set for a sessions court hearing on Feb. 6, but because he was not making bond last week, his first appearance was reset for Tuesday this week. Rob Dalton (no direct relation to Sheriff Norman Dalton) is Vestal's lawyer.

Ragsdale is listed as a witness with Bill Herring, a county jail correctional officer, to Kelly's alleged assault of Vestal in the booking room where judicial commissioners are seated behind a counter with a built-in desk.

Bass reviewed seven witness statements, including those from Kelly and Vestal, as well as video images from the time of the incident, the detective said. Kelly had been called in to sign warrants sought by police against Vestal who was then called from a holding cell to appear before Kelly.

Vestal was given his cane to support himself and Kelly read the warrant out loud to Vestal from behind the booking room counter, Bass said, adding that Vestal said he had no money for bond.

"It was at this time ... Kelly stated that was good because he could set the bond for whatever amount and Vestal could just sit in jail," Bass wrote. "Vestal then swung his cane and struck Kelly lightly on the shoulder.

"Kelly then did strike Vestal about the face and head three times causing Vestal to bleed from the nose before ... Herring was able to step between them," Bass wrote in his narrative.

In the arrest warrant, Bass said Kelly struck Vestal "about the face and head three times" and that at least one city policeman, apparently Ragsdale, "had already taken control of the walking cane that was in the possession of ... Vestal."

According to Dalton, Vestal's assault case was bound over to the grand jury during General Sessions Court proceedings Tuesday. Kelly is scheduled to appear in General Sessions Court on Feb. 28.