Death penalty weighed for inmates charged in death

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Federal prosecutors have until July 30 to decide whether to seek the death penalty for two inmates charged with kidnapping and killing an Ohio businessman in Mississippi after they escaped from a prison work program in Louisiana.

Ricky Wedgeworth and Darian “Drake” Pierce are charged with kidnapping David Cupps from a hotel in Vicksburg, Miss., after escaping from the Louisiana State Police compound in Baton Rouge on March 4, 2011.

Investigators said Cupps, a 53-year-old man from Sunbury, Ohio, was attacked for his rental car and beaten and strangled. His body was dumped in Bessemer, Ala. Cupps was in Mississippi to inspect the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant south of Vicksburg.

Law enforcement agencies across the South were on the lookout for the inmates until they were caught March 14, 2011, after crashing a pickup truck in Memphis, Tenn. Police said that before their capture, the men tied up a county park worker and stole a government parks department truck from Madison County, Tenn.

Wedgeworth, 37, and Pierce, 34, were indicted on multiple charges in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Miss. They could face the death penalty for two counts — kidnapping resulting in death and carjacking resulting in death. They’re also charged with conspiracy and transporting a stolen vehicle. They have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors filed a motion last week in federal court in Jackson asking for an extension of time to file the notice about whether the government will seek the death penalty. Prosecutors said in court filings that defense attorneys had requested a meeting in May to discuss mitigation — evidence used when weighing the death penalty — but the meeting was delayed by two weeks at the request of one of the defense lawyers.

U.S. Magistrate Linda R. Anderson issued a ruling on June 28 that extended the deadline for prosecutors to announce a decision from July 16 to July 30.

Pierce’s attorney, Joe Hollomon, said he and another attorney met with a committee for the U.S. attorney general’s office that reviews death penalty cases and provided evidence he hopes persuaded prosecutors not to seek the death penalty.

“I think we made a persuasive case,” Hollomon said Thursday. “We’re hopeful that they will determine that they should not seek the death penalty.”

He declined to discuss what mitigating evidence he presented.

Wedgeworth’s attorney, George Lucas, said Tuesday that he had no comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Jackson did not respond to questions about the case.

Wedgeworth and Pierce were serving long prison sentences when they escaped from the Louisiana facility. Wedgeworth was serving time for armed robbery and was set to be released in 2023. Pierce was locked up for attempted second-degree murder and was scheduled for release in 2024.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety has said it was using about 160 inmate workers, known as trusties, for various jobs at the State Police compound when Wedgeworth and Pierce escaped. They had been working as groundskeepers there and were able to get keys to a van and drive off, authorities said.

Wedgeworth, who authorities say is from Memphis, Tenn., has said he has a 10th-grade education and once worked in the merchant marine service.

Pierce, of Bogalusa, La., has said he completed 30 hours of college and once had construction jobs working with iron and asphalt. He told the judge he was treated for mental problems as a young teenager, but he didn’t elaborate.

The trial is scheduled to take place in November in Natchez, Miss.