March 16, 2019 10:01:04 PM
Lowndes County supervisors voted in executive session Friday to pay a former New Hope High School student $15,000 to settle a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against a justice court judge, board president Harry Sanders confirmed to The Dispatch.
Judge Ron Cooke was the remaining defendant in a suit brought by Javonte Ellis, who was arrested for statutory rape in March 2015. Ellis was 17 at the time and had engaged in sex with a 14-year-old female. The charge was dropped a few weeks later after it was discovered the age difference between Ellis and the female was a few months shy of the 36-month requirement for charging a minor with statutory rape.
Initially, the county, Sheriff Mike Arledge and sheriff's office Det. Will Spann were also named as defendants in the lawsuit. But in October 2018, a judge dismissed the case against all parties except Cooke.
Ellis was arrested at NHHS in front of students and teachers in March 2015 after Spann, who was investigating the statutory rape case in New Hope, brought the arrest affidavit to Cooke, who signed it. In September 2016, Ellis filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, alleging Spann had "subjectively known" he had no probable cause to arrest Ellis because he knew the birth dates of both Ellis and the female with whom Ellis had consensual relations. Likewise, the suit argues Cooke should have inspected the affidavits to ensure investigators had probable cause to make the arrest.
Ellis was held at Lowndes County Adult Detention Center until he could post $10,000 bond. Because of his arrest, the suit argues, he was expelled from NHHS and barred from attending graduation.
The suit also argues Ellis was a minor and under the jurisdiction of the Youth Court of Lowndes County, therefore Cooke did not have jurisdiction.
A federal judge later ruled that Cook does not have judicial immunity in this case, meaning he could be sued. However, the county does have judicial immunity.
Sanders told The Dispatch the county agreed to pay for Cooke's legal defense, but he hopes the settlement will "take care of this whole thing." Cooke is an elected judge paid by the county.
Jackson attorney Jason Dare, who is defending Cooke, and Tupelo attorney Victor Fleitas, who represents Ellis, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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