By Jack Elliott Jr.
JACKSON – Mississippi hasn’t had an execution in two years, and state Attorney General Jim Hood says he can’t predict when another might occur.
No Mississippi death row appeals are presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
“We usually make predictions on timing based on cases pending before that court,” Hood told The Associated Press this past week.
“There is no way to really know an exact timeline on any of these type cases,” he said. “They are all making their way through the system at various paces. We have some nearing the end of their normal track of appeals, but there is just no way to know when we might have a case that would warrant the filing of a motion to set an execution date.”
The U.S. Supreme Court often is the last stop for inmates seeking a last-minute reprieve from execution. They rarely succeed, a function of the need for five votes on the nine-justice court and the reluctance of appellate judges to disturb lower court rulings unless they are demonstrably wrong.
The most recent execution in Mississippi was June 20, 2012. Gary Carl Simmons Jr., a former grocery store butcher, was executed for dismembering a man during a 1996 attack in which he also raped the man’s female friend.
Before that, Jan Michael Brawner was executed on June 12, 2012, for fatally shooting his 3-year-old daughter, his ex-wife and her parents in a crime in which authorities say he also stole his slain mother-in-law’s wedding ring and used it to propose to his girlfriend.
The Mississippi Supreme Court blocked executions in 2013 and 2014.
It appears Mississippi is headed for another execution hiatus, but one that may not last as long as in the 1990s.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 in a Mississippi death penalty case that described a capital crime to juries as “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” without further definition was unconstitutionally vague. The ruling resulted in nearly two dozen Mississippi death sentences being overturned.
For the rest of the 1990s, no executions took place in the state. The July 2002 execution of Tracy Allen Hansen was Mississippi’s first since 1989. Hansen was executed for gunning down a policeman in 1987.
From 1955 to 1964, Mississippi executed 31 men. Another four were put to death in the 1980s. Since 2002, including Hansen, 17 executions have taken place.
Mississippi had 60 inmates on death row as of Friday.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down existing death penalty laws across the country but did not declare capital punishment unconstitutional. Four years later, the justices approved several rewritten state laws, and executions soon resumed.
Since then, 1,385 inmates have been executed in 34 states through August. More than a third of those were in Texas alone, and in recent years, only a handful of other states have carried out executions on a somewhat regular basis, among them Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma.
Life sentences vs. death sentences
The number of death penalty prosecutions has been dropping, in large part because of the availability of lifetime prison sentences without parole.
Mississippi’s longest serving inmates still have appeals moving through state and federal courts, as Hood noted.
Richard Gerald Jordan, 68, has been on death row the longest – 37 years calculated from his date of conviction, according to Department of Corrections’ records. Jordan was convicted of capital murder committed in the course of a kidnapping.
James Billiot, 53, has been on death row 31 years. He was convicted of using sledgehammer to kill his mother, stepfather and 14-year-old stepsister.
Roger Thorson, 56, has been on death row 25 years. He was sentenced to die for killing a former girlfriend on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.