Last week the Mississippi Court of Appeals granted a new trial to Cory Maye, a 29-year old man serving a life sentence for the murder of Prentiss, Miss., police officer Ron Jones. Maye, who had no prior criminal record, says he was sleeping in his home when Jones and a makeshift drug-raid team kicked down his door in the middle of the night on Dec. 26, 2001. Maye claims he thought the police were criminal intruders and feared for his life and that of his daughter, 18-month old Ta'Corianna, who was asleep on the bed in the room where the shooting occurred. Police found a small amount of mostly ashen marijuana in the apartment.
(For more, read my Oct. 2007 Reason feature on Maye's case, or watch Reason.tv's documentary about Maye's story.)
A Mississippi court convicted Maye of capital murder for the intentional killing of a police officer, sentencing him to death the same day. When I first began writing about the case on my personal blog in late 2005, it attracted the attention of Abe Pafford, an associate at the large Washington, D.C.,-based law firm Covington & Burling. Pafford, who has a daughter about the same age as Ta'Corianna, says he empathized with Maye after thinking about what he would have done if put in the same situation. A team from Covington joined local public defender Bob Evans (who was not Maye's attorney at trial) in early 2006, bringing aboard their own team of investigators and forensic experts. In the fall of that year, Mississippi Circuit Judge Michael Eubanks threw out Maye's death sentence, citing his inadequate defense counsel during the death penalty portion of the trial. Prosecutors agreed not to seek a new sentencing hearing, which resulted in Eubanks re-sentencing Maye to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Maye's new defense team then presented a long brief outlining a multitude of problems with Maye's trial and conviction. Last week's appeals court ruling, while certainly welcome news for Maye and his defense team, granted Maye a new trial only on the issue of venue, argued by then-Covington attorney Ben Vernia, now in his own practice. It considered 12 other issues, and ignored altogether the two issues that took up over half of the argument in Maye's appellate brief: namely, that the warrant to search Maye's apartment was obtained fraudulently, and that given the controlling Mississippi case law, there was insufficient evidence to support Maye's conviction.
I'll have more on those issues in a future column. But the issue of venue is why the court granted Maye a new trial, and it's worth considering in detail here.
Shortly after Maye's arrest in 2001, his family sought out the services of Rhonda Cooper, a private attorney in Jackson. Cooper had no prior death-penalty experience, though Maye's family says she told them she did. Cooper made a number of critical mistakes during Maye's trial, but her first and perhaps most devastating one was to immediately ask for a change of venue. That might seem like a smart move in a case where a black man stands accused of killing a white cop (who also happened to be the son of the town's police chief), but a closer look at the demographics of southern Mississippi shows why it was actually in Maye's interest to be tried in Jefferson Davis County, where the raid took place.
Jefferson Davis County is 58 percent black. Lamar County, Cooper's initial venue request, is 85 percent white. Lamar County is also more politically conservative. Unsurprisingly, the prosecution didn't object and Cooper's request was granted. Bob Evans, the attorney that Maye's family hired after his conviction, quipped, "I imagine the prosecution was doing cartwheels on their way to the courthouse," after Cooper's motion.
Cooper soon realized her mistake and asked that the trial be moved back to Jefferson Davis County. This time, however, the prosecution did object. District Attorney Claiborne "Buddy" McDonald would later argue in a post-trial hearing that the state feared Maye couldn't get a fair trial in Jefferson Davis County, a show of compassion that rang hollow for Maye's new attorney Pafford, who noted that it came from the same man who was trying to have Maye executed.
Judge Eubanks eventually moved the trial to a third county, Marion County, which is where Maye was convicted. Like Lamar County, Marion County is whiter and more conservative than Jefferson Davis County. Maye's jury was comprised of 10 whites and two blacks.
The Mississippi State Constitution guarantees the right to a trial in the county where the alleged crime took place. The prosecution argued that Maye waived that right when he initially asked that the trial be moved. The Court of Appeals ruled last week that the right still applies even if the defendant initially gives it up, so long as the defendant isn't using a change of venue request to delay or obstruct the trial. Maye asked that the venue be switched back two months before his scheduled trial. Eubanks, the court ruled, should have granted Maye's request to move the trial back to Jefferson Davis County.
It seems counterintuitive that a defendant would actually want to be tried in the county where his alleged crime took place, particularly a defendant accused of murdering a cop. But the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed every Mississippian's right to a jury local to where the crime was committed, at least, if that's what they want. There's good reason that right is in the state's constitution, even beyond the raw demographic data. Maye's case illustrates why.
The region of Mississippi where all of this happened is still largely segregated. Rural areas are overwhelmingly black, towns and small cities are mostly white. Racial animus not only persists, it's pervasive, often suffocatingly so. In Jefferson Davis County, black people live in fear of the mostly white police department in Prentiss, the county seat. Nearly every black person I've spoken to there has a story of police abuse, whether it happened to him or her or to someone they know. White people, meanwhile, speak derisively of the mostly black county sheriff's department. Rumors circulate among white residents about Jefferson Davis County Sheriff Henry McCullum abetting drug pushers.
The informant in Maye's case is a local named Randy Gentry. Gentry, who police and prosecutors had used in other drug cases, is an unapologetic bigot, known in and around Prentiss as such. Yet the officers who used him, including Officer Ron Jones, routinely vouched for Gentry's trustworthiness and reliability in obtaining search warrants based on his sworn statements.
I described the area's racial tension in my 2006 article on Maye's case for Reason: When people in the area talk about why they don't trust law enforcement, you hear the same cops named over and over again. You hear about many of the same incidents, then learn that the officers involved never really stop policing; they just move from one department to another. It takes me just a few hours in Prentiss to find another woman who says she too was on the receiving end of a violent, forced-entry drug raid. Though the police didn't find the meth lab they were looking for, they nevertheless jailed her brother for months (he couldn't afford bond) before releasing him without explanation. The Monticello County Sheriff's Department, where the man was jailed, claims he was bound over to circuit court for trial. But eight months later, he has yet to be charged or tried.
And it's not just civilians who make such accusations. One black officer warns me not to trust what I hear from white cops in the area. "The badge and the gun don't mean anything," the officer says. "It doesn't mean they found what they say they found."
Maye's case boils down to his credibility and the credibility of the police officers who conducted the raid. They claim to have announced themselves. Maye says he didn't hear them. If he did hear them, he's guilty of murder. If they didn't announce themselves, or if he didn't hear that announcement, he's at worst guilty of manslaughter and may well be completely innocent, having merely defended his home from a violent intrusion.
In a case where the defendant's guilt or innocence turns almost entirely on these issues of credibility, it makes sense to have a jury with the complete information to make that determination. And that means finding jurors who have absorbed the racial and law enforcement dynamics of the area where the crime took place. That idea might not sit well at first with those accustomed to thinking of jurors as clean slates. But consider the alternative: jurors who may bring assumptions about law enforcement from their own communities that aren't applicable to the case they'll be hearing. The right in question here is the basic right to be judged by a jury of your peers.
The prosecution in Maye's case told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger last week that they will appeal the ruling. First they'll petition to have the Court of Appeals rehear the case. If that's denied, they'll appeal to the Mississippi State Supreme Court. If that also fails, Maye will be retried in Jefferson Davis County. The one drawback for Maye: If he's convicted a second time, the prosecution could again ask the jury to give him the death penalty.
Radley Balko is senior editor of Reason magazine where this column originally appeared. The JFP Daily features his column every Tuesday.