TUPELO – Thomas James Ward was sentenced today to 20 years, six suspended, in prison for his manslaughter guilty plea in the 2010 shooting death of Anna Catherine McCoy.
Ward, 25, of Saltillo received credit for time he'd already served in custody.
Circuit Judge James L Roberts Jr. pronounced his sentence before a crowd in the Lee County Justice Center in downtown Tupelo.
Some three dozen McCoy family and friends waited in the courtroom, as Ward's parents, wife and sister sat quietly before Roberts' decision was announced.
A dozen Lee County deputies stood guard throughout the courtroom as a show of force to any observers who behaved inappropriately when and after the sentence was announced.
McCoy died from a single gunshot to the face on April 15, 2010, in Ward’s bedroom at his parents’ home after she and Ward had gone on a dinner date.
During a nine-day trial and jury deliberation last May, he insisted her death was a tragic accident. Prosecutors said it was so aggregious an act that he was charged with depraved-heart murder.
The jury could not make a unanimous decision and Roberts declared a mistrial.
Facing the possibility he could be tried again, Ward pleaded guilty July 6 to a lesser charge, manslaughter by culpable negligence.
He faced up to 20 years in prison for that crime.
If he’d been convicted of McCoy’s murder, he would have face up to life in prison.
McCoy was a popular, 20-year-old soccer player at Itawamba Community College when she died. Her family also was well known in the area, especially because her father, Cotton McCoy, had been a longtime Tupelo police officer.
• Read Friday’s Daily Journal for more details.
• Below is a running account of today's hearing. Please excuse the typos and other glitches likely since I typed very fast.....
2:15 p.m. Judge Roberts enters Lee courtroom.
JUDGE - Matter before us is sentencing for Mr. Thomas James Ward. (Recounts history of case, indictment, etc.) Says couple of points important. Election in 2011 and DA’s Office changed with Mr. Kelly as DA. Several hearings in this matter in 2010 and 2011. Negotiating is not a bad word. Case was tried in one of lengthier in my experience. Ended May 11, declared mistrial after two days of jury deliberations and said could not reach a unanimous decision. I knew on Friday from looking at jurors’ faces how hard they had worked in an extremely difficult case.
As anyone in system knows, it is always difficult to declare a mistrial. Means jury did its job, worked diligently and were unable to reach unanimity, which is required.
A couple of things needed to be said. Depraved-heart murder is something of an unusual charge. When we think of murder we think of intent, pre-meditation. Depraved heart doesn’t involve them. An extreme degree of recklessness and negligence. Jury had option to convict him of d-p murder or manslaughter. Couldn’t be unanimous on either. Subsequent to that trial, lawyers continued to work hard on this case.
Heard from them, from time to time. Conferences got down to looking at dates for re-trial and hearing motions. All could have been lengthy and laborious. Earliest dates in August or September for trial. Lawyers wanted to reach closure, if it could be done. In early July, ... 6th I think ..., hearing was set and agreed motion to a reduced charge. Lawyers on each side agreed it should be done. Motion to reduce requested court to reduce officially to culpable negligent manslaughter. I admire Mr. Kelly and Mr. Fleitas to agree it be done.
Court has discretion on this. My obligation to try to keep these cases between the legal ditches so we can and do the very best we can. I could have rejected the motion. It was a well tried trial. Thorough preparation. I thought when they came, I should grant the motion. The justice system is important. Realize these quality lawyers have worked as hard as they can to resolve a matter, unless I have a reason not to, I should grant the motion. In that spirit, I did.
DA Office is charged with being a minister of justice ... to seek justice the best they can. Not here to praise these attorneys. Our justice system isn’t perfect but a lot better than any other country. If mistakes are made, from the head not the heart. Agreed motion was the best way to conduct this case.
Kelly said victim’s family did not agree with it. I think he respects that. I certainly do. I also have obligation to move cases along as best I can, other judges too. In terms of time, effort and money. I could have denied motion and set trial again. We could have spent 2-3 weeks again. My decision was there could ahve been another mistrial, we would be where we were. That said, I thought it was the right thing... to grant that motion on July 6. Mr. Ward with counsel entered plea of guilty to culpable negligence manslaughter.
Agreement to defer sentence. Now 20 days since then. Mr. Ward is before the court.
Ward to stand, raise right hand. (Takes oath for testimony.)
(Judge asks him question about his guilty plea.)
Ward - Yes sir.
Judge - At that time, plea was accepted. Minimum is 2 years,fees and costs associated with that. Max is 20 years with MDOC and $20K fine. (Ward says he recalls that.) Recommendation by State of MS - common. Recommendation was to receive 20 years, 6 suspended, leaving 14 to serve and 5 years post release supervision. (Is that right? Ward - yes.) No recommendation as to restitution and fees.
At this time, ask Ward and Fleitas to be seated.
Kelly, any statements by victims’ family. (Kelly says he thinks there are.)
MOTHER - Due to cold and heartless facts. Total disregard for her life. Impact on me truly and overwhelming. Last time, she was beautiful in a new dress, cheerful. She knew I didn’t approve but she went ahead with plans. I did not like him. He never crossed my doorstep. She said I didn’t like him. He never gave me a chance to get to know him. Anna often asked me to join her and friends in activities. She never aksed me to the defendant. I would never have imagined it was the last time. I should have told her how beatuiful and how much I loved her.
Anna was my youngest daughter, myu friend, my sounding board. She was vibrant, loving and a good person. Smile lit up the room. She had gift of bringing out best in a person. She always made sure friends were happy. Her spirit and zest for life affected everyone around her. A young girl whom I didn’t know that she didn’t have many friends but that Anna always had something kind to say to her. It wasn’t until she died did I realize her impact on others lives - hundreds of friends, families, people from community ... who attended her funeral. Outpouring of grief was evidence.
Funeral people said it was largest they ever had. Cards, flowers from outside Tupelo shows reach throughout. Flag from Iraq in her memory. I realized her dreams, my hopes and dreams for her would never come to task. What great things she would have accomplished.
Death by selfish pull of gun. When she died, I stopped living. Taken from her sister. Couldn’t teach her niece to ride a horse. Future occasions will have empty chair. I lost one of most important people in life, my desire for my career of 21 years, to teach children. She came to visit. But I found it impossible to stay focussed and be energetic as PE teacher. I am still unemployed.
Daily pain and despair I feel. I say, I’m OK. I’m not OK. I still cry for the loss of my beautiful daughter every day. I visit her grave daily. Keep her flowers changed and new, trim her grass, keep her gravestone shiny. I can still take care of Anna. I know she is an angel now but I can’t say goodbye. If it weren’t for my oldest daughter and grandchild would be no reason for my existence. (Audience weeping).
I have watched videos, her pictures. I deserve more (serious tone). Hope he will be dealt with severely. I love you Anna. (Mrs. Allison McCoy, her mother.)
COTTON MCCOY - her father. Jimmy McCoy (he’s crying... asks former wife to come stand with him ad read statement.) My life was changed with her homicide. I don’t know words to describe my feelings. On April 15, 2010, burned in my heart forever. First thought she was in a car wreck. When I saw mother and coroner, I knew she was gone. I couldn’t believe what they were telling me. After I saw her lying there... I told them this couldn’t have happened the way it was told.
I go to the cemetery, talk to her, and sorry I could not protect her (people weeping). Nothing can do to bring her back. Grief deepened knowing how cold her life was taken. It hurts to be around people in public. See people who bear a resemblance to her, walk like or talk like her. I don’t want to go anywhere and don’t want to see the person who took her life walking around, living his life. I have right to watch her grow up, graduate from college, walk her down the aisle. I will miss so many things, all taken from me.
I will never be the same person again. This stress has taken a toll on my well being, but I will cope. (He says to WArd ... Why? I understand why she never told me who you were. I have never met you until one day, in the Mall. Do you remember that? ... Ward doesn’t respond.)
JIM MCCOY, HER BROTHER - When you hear about the death of a young person, it’s always tragic. (He’s struggling to speak.) Anna’s death is a tragic incident... he can’t go on. Woman reads for him.) She was energetic, outgoing. She and I grew up in different homes but we connected when our father was in the hospital. She was an important part of my life. The death affects me daily. (Man is weeping.) I nevef got to tell her she meant everything. Not a day that goes by that I want to pick up the phone to tell her something. Only wish we had been closer all our lives. Her life was cut so short.
I tried not to believe it. At funer home, seeing her, how my heart felt crushed and empty. Every day, empty spot. Nothing to fill it. In summers, we would get together since we wasn’t in school. Now, summer is different. She loved my grilled chicken. We’d had to deal with so many things that we would want to share. Now, we cannot. I know she’s here. I can feel her presence. Now in my heart and memory. Had effect on me and my children. VEry hard on them every day. Talk about her every day, miss her dearly. Can’t understand why this happened.
When it happened, they wrote aobut her in their journals at school. They wrote her initials all over our home. They ask about her all the time. They each have something of hers. Youngest child sleeps with her blanket every night. Hard to explain how this has impacted our lives. They will never be able to get in the yard with her, have her teach them soccer moves. See the hurt and longing for her in their eyes every day. Stupid, reckless incident.
One of hardest things ever had to go through - losing someone because of a reckless act. Can’t put into words what Anna Catherine meant to me and family.
2:52 - judge - Any others? (Kelly, no.)
FLEITAS - Nothing, your honor.
JUDGE - Asks audience... no expressions of pleasure or displeasure. A lot of sensitivity in this case. I understand, appreciate and respect that. No outbursts from either side. Hope that what occurs will bring some closure, as best it can. None ofus anticipate burying our children. But those of us understand it does occur. We must go along bearing the memory of those departed. I understand. Some closure, though I know it doesn’t cause you to forget. I buried a child 39 years ago (voice chokes). I always wonder what would have been. Wife in courtroom. She has a grandchild in custody of MDOC in another part of the state. It’s personal but offer as some explanation of whence I come.
Going to impose the sentence. During trial, all you were courteous and cooperative. I believe you will be able to exit the courtroom without any difficulty. Adequate law enforcement here. I understand the loss and sensitivity. Hope this closure will assist to moving this matter and your lives along. Strength and consolation of friends and grace of God will hopefully assist all of you.
WARD, STAND - Judge - (FLEITAS, SAY ANYTHING? No your honor.)
JUDGE - I said earlier about motion to reduce charge, ... I sometimes see and hear recommendations I might not be in full agreement if I had done it myself. But I respect both sides ... generally uphold those recommendations. We cannot try every case on the docket. No way, resource-wise and personnel.
Accept recommendation by state - 20 years, six suspended, $1,000 fine.
(Ward was led from the courtroom. Audience held until he’s out of building.)