Tracks Of Their Tears | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Tracks Of Their Tears

The only "tombstone" at Earl Berry's grave so far is a hand-engraved stone from his brother.

The only "tombstone" at Earl Berry's grave so far is a hand-engraved stone from his brother. Photo by Lisa Anderson

Velma Berry lives in a brick house seven miles due west of the Mantee exit off the Natchez Trace in Northeast Mississippi. The well-kept lawn, thriving tomato plants and orange kitty-cat lolling on the carport near a hot-pink lawn chair show signs of vibrant life that belie the pain of the woman who now lives alone inside the house.

In March, her husband of more than half a century, William Wallace Berry, died after a long battle with lung cancer, losing one lung before the other leaked fluid around his heart. Sixty-four days later, on May 21, the state of Mississippi executed her son, Earl Wesley Berry. The two men are buried next to each other a highway and two gravel roads away in a cemetery dotted with other Berrys behind the tiny Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The last time she saw her son alive, he told jokes to her grandson and then asked her to bury him there, 116 miles from the prison where he has spent the last two decades for beating Mary Bounds to death.

"What hurt me so bad, he asked me to bring him home," Mrs. Berry said, sobbing. She turned the pages of the photo album in her lap to avoid eye contact. "I don't know how I'm going to pay for it, but I brought him. He wanted to be buried by his daddy."

His father, who had worked as a farm overseer, had not wanted to live to see his son executed. "He said he hoped he'd be gone when it happened," Mrs. Berry said, sitting in her recliner with light pink curtains hanging overhead, surrounded by family pictures.

He was.

Blood Stains
On the evening of Nov. 29, 1987, Earl Berry, 28, was driving through the small town of Houston in his grandmother's car. He spotted Mary Bounds leaving the First Baptist Church, where she attended regularly, singing for the choir. He parked the car and snuck up on Bounds as she was about to get into her own car. Berry, who was a 6-foot-1-inch-tall man who liked to buff up with weights, grabbed Mrs. Bounds, hit her and forced her into his grandma's car. He then drove out of town, intending to rape the woman who was twice his age.

In the woods, he took her from the car, lifted her over a fence and ordered her to lie down. But he didn't rape her, instead taking her back to the car, telling her he would take her back to town.

But he didn't. He drove her to a different wooded area of Chickasaw County where he took Mrs. Bounds out of the car. She begged for mercy, but he still beat her to death with his large fists and muscular forearm. Then, he lifted her over another fence and carried her deeper into the woods and left her body.

Afterward, according to his later confession, Berry drove back to his grandmother's house where he was living, another four miles past his parents' home. Along the way, he dumped his bloody, mismatched tennis shoes. At the house, he burned his own clothes, soaked with Mrs. Bounds' blood and wiped blood stains off the car with a towel, which he threw into a nearby pond.

Berry's brother, James, was at his grandmother's house and saw Berry trying to clean up the blood.

Three days after the murder, Mrs. Bounds' vehicle was found in Houston and soon her body nearby.

Then on Dec. 5, 1987, Berry's brother called the police and reported his brother's suspicious activity on the 29th. Police went to his grandmother's house to arrest him. There, they say, he confessed and told them where to find the bloody sneakers and the towel he used to wipe the car. His knuckles were skinned.

After the police had arrived, Mrs. Berry got a phone call and rushed over. When she got there, Berry was sitting in the back seat of a squad car.

"Mama, they accusing me of killing that woman," he said.

The Wrong Crowd
Earl Berry didn't start talking until he was 5 years old. And even then, it was hard to understand him; one of his four brothers would translate to others for him.

Growing up, he was happy-go-lucky and loved the outdoors—hunting, fishing, swimming and especially playing baseball, which he did in school until he dropped out. He wasn't a fan of school—probably because his IQ would later test in the low 70s, so he dropped out. He started drinking and doing drugs, and even ended up in rehab about two years before Mrs. Bounds' death in lieu of going to jail. "He got with the wrong crowd," his mother said.

But rehab didn't make a huge difference for Berry. "Yeah and naw," Mrs. Berry said. "It seemed like it helped a little."

Perhaps the biggest turning point came for Berry when he was about 20. He loved to swim in local watering holes and dived into one head first and hit his head on the rock at the bottom. His mother, as well as mental experts who examined him later, would say he likely damaged his brain in the accident, which likely contributed to his mental problems.

Later, after he was convicted of murder, a psychologist would diagnose him as a paranoid schizophrenic; his mother now calls him "bipolar." She remembers him attempting suicide several times.

While in prison in 1985 for a different crime, Berry attempted suicide again, and the final prison medical diagnosis was "suicidal gestures/mentally retarded."

The fact that experts say now that Berry was, and had long been, "retarded" did not save his life, however.

It did prolong it for a while, after his execution was stayed last fall pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether states could kill retarded prisoners. After the decision came back in April 2008—go ahead—Berry would only have weeks more to live.

As is often the case with condemned prisoners, Berry's execution might have come down to his early legal counsel, and what he did or did not do. Amnesty International reports that public defenders representing Berry did not request evidentiary hearing in a timely fashion on his claim of mental retardation. A timely showing that his IQ was under 75 might have spared him the executioner's needle and condemned him to his prison cell instead.

But that affidavit by his then lawyer did not come.

His mother blames his early attorneys for not helping keep him alive. She said they agreed with everything the judge said and never objected. "If he'd had a fair trial," she says, "it wouldn't hurt me so bad. But he did not have a fair trial."

To this day, Mrs. Berry believes her boy was innocent, despite his confession.

"He wouldn't even kill a toad frog," she said.

God's People
Berry never lived free another day after his Dec. 5, 1987 arrest. Because he was characterized as a "habitual criminal—convicted of seven prior convictions including simple assault, two escapes, two grand larcenies, perjury and burglary—he was charged with and convicted of capital murder in Mrs. Bounds' hometown. The prosecutor asked the jury to allow the state to execute Berry, because the death penalty is "authorized by Mississippi, and it's been authorized by scriptural law for a long time."

Not all religious authorities agreed with that assessment, however. United Methodist Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of Jackson called for "repentance" as May 21, 2008—Berry's D-day—approached. "We grieve the loss of Mary Bounds and the violence of her death," Ward wrote on the church's Web site, "but by killing Earl Berry, the state will participate in the violence of our society and thereby escalate it. ... As God's people, we are called to cease offering evil in retribution for evil."

Other of God's people, however, saw no reason to delay the execution, mental retardation or not. "I find no justification to grant your clemency," Gov. Haley Barbour responded simply to Berry's last-minute plea for a stay.

"He thought he would get out until the very last," Mrs. Berry said of her son.

On the day of the execution, she and other families members spent three hours, from 1 to 4 p.m., with him before he was taken away. "It was the awfulest day I ever had in my life," she said. That's when he asked her to "bring him home" to lie next to his daddy.

At 4:35 p.m., Berry had his last meal—barbecue pork chops and sausages; buttered toast, salad with heavy onion, mashed potatoes and gravy, pecan pie and juice—and then was given a sedative. Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps visited Bounds in his cell; he told reporters that Berry was somber. Epps asked him if he had any remorse for Mrs. Bounds' death. "He said he had no remorse and felt that after 21 years, he had paid for it," Epps said.

The mother declined to watch her son be executed, as did other family members; about 40 members of the Bounds family attended the execution of Berry, who wore a white T-shirt, red pants and socks as state employees administered the "lethal cocktail" of drugs. After the execution, the victim's husband, Charles Bounds, told reporters: "I don't have much to say. I just think it took too long. I have had this on my mind for 20 years, and it really takes a lot out of me." Her daughter, Jena Watson, said justice had been served, adding that her mother would have wanted people to forgive Berry.

Sitting in her recliner last weekend, Velma Berry said she has always believed the death penalty is wrong, even long before Mary Bounds died. "I don't think nobody should take somebody's life," she said. "I'm just mad at the system. ..."

"I tell myself, he's in peace now. He can't hear the big bars slamming, the guards cussing him, other people hollering."

At the cemetery, behind a boxy salmon-colored church under mammoth shade trees, neither of the Berry men's graves has a real headstone because Velma Berry can't afford them. She hopes the military will provide one for her husband.

Her son, James, has erected a makeshift marker for the brother he turned in. In a jagged stone about a foot high, he has etched Berry's birth and death dates, ending the inscription, "Love, James.

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