A New Trial for Cory Maye

Last week the Mississippi Court of Appeals granted a new trial (PDF) to Cory Maye, a 29-year old man serving a life sentence for the murder of Prentiss, Mississippi 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 December 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 October 2007 Reason feature on Maye’s case, or watch Reason.tv’s documentary about Maye’s story.)

Maye was eventually convicted of capital murder for the intentional killing of a police officer. He was sentenced 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 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 Maye being re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Maye’s new defense team then presented a long brief (PDF) 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 them or 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 had been 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 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 that 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.

– Article from Reason.

Comments

8 Comments

  1. Adam on

    </t>

    hehe problem solved. I pwn the interwebs.

  2. Adam on

    if you think about the cops left standing not shooting back at him, you’d have to assume they knew it wasn’t murder and realized that immediately or they would have shot him dead and everyone would think he was selling or growing pot from there. They would find “evidence” and move it in after themselves before calling the coroner. Makes you wonder how often it works out that way for innocent men.

    (heh, there is an open <i> or <em> tag at the end of the article. It looks like every comment here is more important than usual, lol)

  3. eric yoder on

    this goverment is so fucked up they foucs 80 percent on weed and the other 20 on coke,herion,and meth.this man should be given a fair trail.if someome would have kicked down my door in the middle of the night i would have done the same.all he was doing is protecting his family.my heart goes out to both families.because if u thank about it the cops could have went about this some other way.in 2004 garland ploice were called about a fight on my street.and some how i ll never know they said it was my house.and at this time i was at work and my wife and kids went out mothers day shopping when she returned home there where ten cop cars out side of my house.and when she pulled up they said we got all your stuff she said what they said all your growing supplies and the 27 plants.they entered my house with no shearch warrent and charged her to when it was all my doings.it costed me 15,500.00 to stay out of jail.and 5 years p.o and the endless aa classes.texas ploice do what they want and make there own laws.and by the way i use to be a herion addict and growing pot kept me sober i fall i love with growing and smoking.sorry for the long story of mine own.i feel they need to foucs more on busting the crack,herion,and meth dealers.FREE THIS MAN THAT WAS PROTECTING HIS LITTE 18 MONTH BABY.AND FOR U COPS OUT THERE STOP BUSTING DOORS DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT OVER ALITTLE AMOUNT OF WEED.MY HEART GOES OUT TO BOTH FAMILIES THIS ALL COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED.

  4. Anonymous on

    Perhaps you would accept a ticket on a returning slave ship so you can show your bro’s what a toilet looks like!

    Never seen blacks rushing back too africa too at least show them cleanliness!

    I guess they are free to be hassled by whitey you racists!parasite

  5. pissed off black mo fo! on

    europeans being europeans that all, GO HOME! and this AFRICAN BROTHER whould be free that indain dude prof of pot right fuck you honkeys you fuck up the world for 500 years , now it our turn to fix it. Iam going home to Africa, were i WILL HAVE a better life than here he may be nuts on alot of thing, but hes right on your asses being here. Why should anyone have helped your movement when your crimes of your parents is 100 times worst? Yo all brother and sisters when they do a crime it overlooked, but we do something they dont like, well look whos in there cages? If you black, that indain dudes right you are the problem! Glad this is my last year around you clowns.Nambia here I come!

  6. Anonymous on

    this guy did not do a damn thing wrong. he was protecting his own life and the life of his daughter! being sentenced for live for doing so is BS. im really glad to see hes getting another chance

  7. Anonymous on

    M’sippi hasn’t changed much. Just now they inject them instead of lynching them. If things are getting slow around town, just get a goon squad together and do a home invasion on a “colored” (their word, not mine). I bet they were a whoopin’ and a yellin’ like good ol’ boys up until one of them stopped a bullet with his head.

  8. Anonymous on

    this guy should get a reward and a metal he did this country a service .breaking down doors for small amounts of marijuana is a crime and if you do that you should die from lead poisoning