By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ALBANY – Death row inmate Marlon Latodd Howell’s appeals attorney insists his client did not pull the trigger that killed newspaper carrier David Pernell.
Pernell was shot to death in New Albany in the early morning of May 15, 2000, and the man who swore he saw it happen picked Howell out of a lineup May 16.
A Union County jury subsequently convicted Howell of capital murder and he was sentenced to die of lethal injection.
Trouble is, says North Carolina defense attorney William “Billy” Richardson, Howell is innocent.
“If it’s going to take the rest of my life to get him off, I’m going to do it,” Richardson vows.
But Attorney General Jim Hood, who was the case’s district attorney, says Richardson’s got no evidence to back up his claims.
“Sometimes things like this look good on paper but they don’t work out against the real evidence,” Hood told the Daily Journal on Wednesday, one week before a hearing about Howell’s appeal.
Senior Circuit Judge Samac Richardson of Rankin County will preside over the multi-day proceeding set to start April 10 in New Albany, a dozen years after Howell’s conviction.
Lawyer Richardson comes to convince Judge Richardson that Howell’s prosecution was based on false information that was perpetuated by then-District Attorney Hood and his team, even in the face of the truth.
He seeks to get Howell’s conviction and death sentence overturned, or at least a new trial for his client who just turned 33.
Hood dismissed lawyer Richardson’s suggestion that Hood could be called as a witness, saying he’s got nothing to be a witness about.
In 2003, Hood was elected attorney general and has won re-election twice.
Current District Attorney Ben Creekmore, who will be part of the state’s team at the hearing, was not involved in the 2001 trial.
“I’m really not at liberty to say much about the case,” he said Tuesday about the hearing in the Union County Courthouse.
In a nutshell, Billy Richardson will make these claims to the judge:
• Howell was arrested and charged with capital murder on May 15, not May 16 as the state contends.
• A May 16 lineup from which Charles Rice picked out Howell was tainted because Howell had no lawyer and had not waived his right to one.
• Then-New Albany Police Chief David Grisham lied when he said Howell had a lawyer at the lineup.
• The state had a witness, Terkecia Pannell, who could say she told prosecutors she did not see Howell with a gun or hear him say anything about killing someone, but she wasn’t called and the defense never knew about her possible testimony.
• Two men arrested with Howell said he shot Pernell but later said they were wrong.
Hood says not to expect much from Pannell, whom he said gave his office a sworn statement recently and said she didn’t know to whom she spoke before the trial.
Richardson says he will present evidence that Rice “couldn’t see what he said he saw” when Pernell was shot.
As for the lineup, the state’s chief law enforcement officer said those issues have been argued before and that Howell was not under arrest for capital murder, rather a parole violation, when he was put in a lineup.
Hood supports former Chief Grisham’s testimony that Howell’s lawyer was present at the lineup.
Richardson says he believes the allegedly tainted lineup was crucial to Howell’s conviction, and the whole trial was tainted by it.
He also insists that as soon as Howell was arrested with a charge, he was entitled to a lawyer.
Grisham, who retired as chief, is on the subpoena list for the hearing.
Among others subpoenaed to testify are Rice, his wife Melody Burns Rice and Howell’s trial defense attorney Duncan Lott of Booneville.
In the early morning hours of May 15, 2000, Hugh David Pernell, a newspaper carrier for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, was shot and killed in his car on Broad Street in New Albany while running his paper route. The shooting occurred in front of Charles Rice’s house.
Rice later told law enforcement he heard two cars in the street, looked out the window and saw a man exit the rear car and approach the driver’s side window of the front vehicle.
After some commotion, he said, the man pulled a pistol and shot the front-vehicle driver. The shooter got into the passenger seat of the rear vehicle, which left the scene.
Pernell died there of a single gunshot wound to the chest.
Rice called 911 and told officers the shooter was a young black male who left in a late model, dark-color Oldsmobile.
Arrested after a police tip were Curtis Lipsey, Adam Ray and Howell, who’d been riding around together overnight.
Lipsey and Ray implicated Howell, who claimed no involvement in the murder. He said he’d been in Corinth with a woman but couldn’t provide her name or address.
Lipsey and Rice were key identification witnesses at Howell’s trial. Ray also claimed Howell was the shooter, but he never testified and later recanted.
Lipsey and Ray pleaded guilty to manslaughter and armed robbery in Pernell’s death. Lipsey continues serving a 35-year sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary with a tentative release date of June 2034, and Ray, 30 years at Marshall County Correctional Facility, due for release in April 2027.
Trial prosecutor Kelly Luther insists, in court documents, that while he never sought a background check on Rice, the state turned over all its evidence to the defense.
Much time and scrutiny have passed through the judicial reviews of this case.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address Howell’s appeal, saying the issue he brought forth had not been argued in lower appeal courts.
In 2008, the Mississippi Supreme Court with a 5-4 vote denied its additional review of the case, although it said he was entitled to a hearing about claims of Lipsey’s recanted testimony, issues about whether he had an attorney at the lineup and whether Howell could have been helped by a woman’s claims that she heard Ray and Lipsey say they shot a white man and talked about hiding the gun behind a house.
In the court’s dissent, justices said Howell was entitled to a hearing about evidence affecting a material witness’ credibility.
Billy Richardson is well- known in criminal defense circles. He often gets calls from families of the convicted because a movie was made about one of his famous cases.
In this case, Marlon Howell’s jeopardy was not even on his radar until Richardson’s daughter, working as an office intern, took a call from Howell’s family, which prompted her to read the trial transcript.
“One morning, she woke me up and asked me to watch her out the window and tell me what I could see,” he recalls. Pernell’s shooter reportedly stood 71 feet from Rice’s view in the pre-dawn hours.
Then, Richardson said, his daughter ordered him outside to do the same for her. Neither could see sufficient details of each other to swear to an identity, he said, even though they knew it was their own exercise.
After he read the trial transcript, Richardson promised his daughter they’d investigate and wound up spending a week in Northeast Mississippi.
Hood argues that Howell’s case “was done right” and his attorney is just trying to create “some cloud.”
The outcome of Howell’s case wasn’t justice, Richardson says. If Howell gets a new trial, Richardson believes justice will be found.