Court: Jones’ life sentence tossed

By Patsy R. Brumfield/Daily Journal

Brett Jones, serving life without parole for his grandfather’s 2004 murder, will get a new look at his sentence.

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday vacated his sentence and ordered the case back to Lee County in light of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Jones, who turned 24 Tuesday, was convicted in 2005 for the stabbing death in the Palmetto community.

Jones’ appeal counsel, Thomas Freeland IV of Oxford, said shortly after the decision that he and co-counsel Sylvia Owen of Tupelo will ask the state Supreme Court for a re-hearing to clarify what it intends to happen with Jones’ sentence.

Questions remain about whether he could receive the same sentence, again.

Thursday’s order returns the case back to Lee County for re-sentencing. Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner presided over the original proceedings.

The state high court’s 6-3 decision, written by Justice Michael Randolph, follows the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it’s constitutionally unfair to mandate sentence of a juvenile to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. The nation’s highest court said that’s what mandatory life in prison without possibility of parole is for a juvenile.

The 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Randolph wrote, “modified Mississippi substantive law,” by narrowing its application for juveniles.

Jones was barely 15 when he stabbed his grandfather, 68-year-old Bertis Jones.

Brett Jones testified that his grandfather came at him in the kitchen and cornered him. He claimed he stabbed his grandfather in self-defense.

Prosecutors claimed the teenager was a troubled youth and got angry when his grandfather ordered Brett’s girlfriend to leave their house.

Owen first appealed in late 2009. Until Thursday, all appeals had been denied.

In his dissent Justice Jim Kitchens of Crystal Springs, joined by justices David Chandler and Leslie King, said it’s the state’s parole statute that violates the Supreme Court decision, not the murder statute, and said he would adopt an approach taken by the Wyoming Supreme Court to hold unconstitutional the law as it applies to juveniles convicted of murder.

However, Kitchens writes that the majority’s decision vacating Jones’ sentence merely sends it back to Lee County to be sentenced to life or life without parole, ignoring the “distinctions between capital murder and murder.”

He said it is clear the U.S. Supreme Court decision requires the Mississippi court to find the statute unconstitutional as applied to juveniles convicted of murder.

A former district attorney, Kitchens insists circuit courts have no authority to impose anything other than a life sentence upon conviction of murder.

Arguing with the Kitchens dissent, Randolph wrote that declaring Mississippi sentencing law unconstitutional for all juveniles would be “an inordinate expansion” of the U.S. court’s ruling.

A June 2013 MSSC decision, for a case similar to Jones’, rejected that a juvenile could be mandatorily sentenced to life without parole.

patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com