Day: June 12, 2012

Tennesse – Memphis man released after 27 years in prison

June 12, 2012  Source :

A former death row inmate who won a new trial in the 1983 murder of a Memphis grocer has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time he already has served.

Erskine Leroy Johnson, 54, was released Friday morning after serving 26 years, 11 months and five days for the shooting death of Joe Belenchia during a holdup on Oct. 2, 1983, at the Food Rite Grocery at 2803 Lamar.

“He is overjoyed at being out,” said Gerald Skahan, chief capital-case attorney in the Public Defenders Office. “He is looking forward to enjoying the rest of his life and spending it helping others.”

He said Johnson has always maintained his innocence, but entered an Alford plea, also called a best-interests plea, so he could get out of prison and avoid putting his family through a trial.

He was released Friday morning from the Shelby County Jail after entering his plea this week in Criminal Court.

Johnson was on death row from Jan. 26, 1995, to Nov. 15, 2004, but was re-sentenced to life in prison after the state Supreme Court ruled prosecutors did not give the defense a police report showing the defendant could not have fired a shot that wounded a customer in the store.

Then last December the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals awarded Johnson a new trial, ruling that newly discovered evidence raised by the defense may have caused the jury to reach a different verdict.

The court found that new evidence indicating close relationships among several of the state’s witnesses, if true, could have been viewed as a motive to protect other possible suspects and could have weakened the witnesses’ credibility before the jury.

Johnson said that around the time of the murder he was in St. Louis at a birthday party for his mother.

Prosecutors said Johnson’s palm print was found on the getaway car and that one witness told the jury that Johnson had confessed to “a cold-blooded” shooting in Memphis.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Campbell said the state offered the settlement because the case was nearly 30 years old and Johnson already had served nearly 27 years in prison. A life sentence under laws in effect at the time of the murder was at least 25 years.

Campbell said prison officials had called Johnson “an exemplary prisoner” and that the state parole board had granted his release scheduled for June 11.


Mississippi may see most executions since 1950s

June 11, 2012 Source :

With four execution so far and two scheduled this month, Mississippi is on pace to have more executions in 2012 than it has had in any year since the 1950s.

The last time Mississippi executed more than four inmates in any single year was in 1961, when five died in the gas chamber. There were eight executions in each of the years 1955 and 1956. In those days, inmates were put to death for crimes like armed robbery, rape or murder. Today, the only crime punishable by death in Mississippi is capital murder — a murder that happens during the commission of another felony.

The increase in executions comes as fewer people are being sentenced to death across the country. Some experts say the upward trend in Mississippi isn’t likely to last.

Don Cabana, a former Mississippi corrections commissioner and author of the book, “Death At Midnight: The Confessions of an Executioner,” said the increase “was absolutely predictable” and has more to do with timing and the pace of appeals than anything else.

“You have a number of people who have been sitting on death row for a long time whose cases kind of simultaneously, or in close proximity, started exhausting their appeals,” Cabana said.

Three of the men executed so far this year were convicted of crimes committed in 1995 and the other was convicted in the 1990 stabbing deaths of four children.

Jan Michael Brawner, who’s scheduled for execution on Tuesday, was convicted in the 2001 killings of his 3-year-old daughter, his ex-wife and her parents in Tate County. Gary Carl Simmons Jr., scheduled to die by injection June 20, was convicted of shooting and dismembering a man in Pascagoula over a drug debt in 1996.

“Mississippi went for a long time with no executions, or hardly any executions. It’s due to the slowness of the appellate process. But now these cases are coming to fruition,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that collects and analyzes information on the death penalty.

Jim Craig, an attorney who has worked on appeals for death row inmates, believes there’s more to it than that.

Craig said that seven out of 11 men executed in Mississippi since 2008 were represented on appeal by the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel when it was led by attorney Bob Ryan, who took over the office in 2002. Glenn S. Swartzfager took over the office in 2008.

In a 2006 affidavit obtained by The Associated Press, Ryan described a situation in which the office lacked manpower and funding and he sometimes relied on trial summaries when filing appeals in numerous cases. At one point, he was essentially “the sole counsel on 21 cases,” he wrote in the affidavit.

Craig says he’s convinced that some of those men would be alive, either still appealing their cases or having their death sentences reduced, if they had better representation. Craig said many appeals were filed based only on the court transcript, and the post-conviction office didn’t bother to interview witnesses.

“This is more than just the usual things moving at the usual speed. This is a breakdown in the system of providing lawyers to poor people when the state is trying to execute them,” he said.

The Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel was created by the Legislature in 2000 to represent indigent death row inmates in appeals.

“A pace of one or two executions a year is about what Mississippi has averaged. The reason why we have had 11 since 2008, I think it has to do with the failures of the post-conviction office in those years,” Craig said.

The number of executions in Mississippi has fluctuated from year to year. There were two executions last year, three in 2010, none in 2009 and two in 2008. There also have been long gaps in executions over the years because of litigation. There were lulls between 1964 and 1983 and again from 1989 to 2002.

So far this year, Mississippi is only one execution behind Texas. Texas, however, has more executions scheduled for the remainder of the year than Mississippi. Texas has executed some 460 more people than Mississippi since 1976, but Texas has a much larger population.

There are 52 inmates on death row in Mississippi, which ranks 15th among death penalty states. Two of the inmates on Mississippi’s death row are women, though it has been decades since a woman was executed in Mississippi. California has the most death row inmates with around 723.

Richard Jordan, 66, who was first convicted in 1977, is the oldest person on Mississippi’s death row and has been there the longest, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Jordan has an appeal pending in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mississippi Supreme Court sets execution date for Gary Carl Simmons Jr.- June 20

June 5, 2012 source :

JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Supreme Court set a June 20 execution date Tuesday for 49-year-old Gary Carl Simmons Jr.

The court set the date and granted Simmons’ request for in-person contact visits with a forensic psychologist and a neuropsychologist for the purpose of conducting mental health evaluations. His attorneys had argued that the mental evaluation was necessary because Simmons may have post-traumatic stress disorder or other illnesses and had suffered from abuse as a child.

Simmons was convicted for shooting and dismembering Jeffrey Wolfe, who was killed in August 1996 after going to Simmons’ Pascagoula home to collect on a drug debt.

Timothy Milano, Simmons’ co-defendant and the person authorities said shot Wolfe, was convicted on the same charges and sentenced to life in prison.

Simmons worked as a grocery store butcher when he and Milano were charged with killing Wolfe. Police said the pair kidnapped Wolfe and his female friend and later assaulted the woman and locked her in a box. Police later found parts of Wolfe’s dismembered body at Simmons’ house, in the yard and in a nearby bayou.

Simmons also argued his original lawyers were ineffective at trial and that he never later had lawyers good enough to point out shortcomings.

In addition, he argued his legal cause suffered in part because of ineffective assistance by Bob Ryan, formerly head of the state office meant to handle post-conviction appeals for people sentenced to death.

The state’s high court, however, denied Simmons’ request to challenge the performance of prior post-conviction counsel.