By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – Caleb Carrothers’ defense team put a great deal of emphasis during jury selection on how prospective jurors related to the death penalty. It may have hinted how little confidence they had in their case, but it was not sufficient to save their client from the ultimate sentence.
Carrothers was found guilty Thursday of capital murder in the July 11, 2009, robbery-related homicides of Frank Clark and his son Taylor Clark at their Oxford-area home. He also was found guilty of aggravated assault in the nonfatal shooting of Tonya Clark, Frank’s wife and Taylor’s mother.
On Friday, the same jury, which had been brought in from Lee County because of local pretrial publicity, sentenced Carrothers to death.
During the trial, Carrothers’ attorneys quickly invoked the “CSI” defense, hoping jurors would demand that evidence be as clear-cut as that on TV dramas.
In opening statements and in their questions to witnesses, they also pointed out that Taylor Clark sold drugs and that Frank Clark was known sometimes to smoke marijuana.
The defense team also said Josh Clark, who had first identified Carrothers as the killer, had suffered memory problems since an auto accident months before the killings. The lawyers also noted that Tonya Clark had failed to identify Carrothers in a photo lineup the night of her husband’s and son’s funeral visitation.
“I was not in a very good condition. I was in a state of shock,” she explained on the stand.
Her identification of the defendant in person, however, had never wavered.
Prosecutors acknowledged both the Clarks’ drug connections and that the investigation had produced no dramatic “CSI”-style evidence. Appealing instead to the common sense of the jurors, they presented a slow accumulation of witnesses and dozens of pieces of circumstantial evidence until a picture formed of how Frank and Taylor Clark were killed and Tonya Clark was gravely wounded in their Lafayette County home.
Public Defender Josh Turner and attorney Kelsey Rushing of the Mississippi Office of Capital Defense emphasized there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence linking Carrothers to any crime scene. One witness, however, reported that Carrothers left her house with Taylor Clark, and both surviving members of the Clark family – Tonya and her elder son, Josh – identified Carrothers as the attacker. Tonya Clark explained the lack of fingerprints: Carrothers had used a rug by her front door to wipe prints from a rifle he’d picked up in the house only to find the weapon was unloaded. Photos of the crime scene showing the rug’s position supported her account.
Bullets extracted from the victims’ bodies, the floor and the ceiling reportedly matched a .38 Special revolver found in Taylor Clark’s car down the road from the Clark residence.
A break in the case
One early break in the case came when Taylor Windham told an investigator that he’d been taking his usual predawn walk through his Grand Oaks neighborhood on July 12 when he briefly encountered a shirtless black male who had many scratches on his body.
Windham said the man explained he’d been “jumped” and asked for directions to Highway 7. The encounter was about five hours after the shootings and roughly a mile from the Clarks’ home.
Sheriff’s Department Investigator Scott Mills said the scratches were consistent with having walked in the dark through the woods filled with undergrowth between the Clarks’ Belle River Road neighborhood and Grand Oaks.
Mills checked with a nearby convenience store on Highway 7 and found its surveillance video showed Carrothers, shirtless and scratched.
The clerk on duty at the time confirmed Carrothers’ unusual appearance and his story.
Some of the most damning evidence came from Carrothers himself.
After finding that he was wanted for the shootings, he turned himself in and granted Sheriff’s Department investigators Mills and Alan Wilbourn an interview after being read his Miranda rights.
In more than an hour of a disjointed narrative and vague responses to investigators’ questions, Carrothers strained to produce suitable answers.
He named several people in his chronology of the weekend of July 11-12, but Mills said each of those people denied his story.
The one consistency throughout the interview was Carrothers’ claim, “I ain’t killed nobody.” He did not speak at his trial.
Pleas for mercy
Several family members and friends of Carrothers, including one of his junior-high teachers, made eager pleas for mercy at his sentencing. Some of them cited the lack of good role models in his life. The testimony of his brother, Marco, who was described as someone that Caleb Carrothers idolized, reinforced that reality.
“Basically the way I grew up, I wanted to be independent, which basically I am today,” Marco Carrothers said.
He seemed unaware of the irony of his statement, made while wearing shackles, handcuffs and a bright yellow jumpsuit from the prison where he’s serving a 20-year sentence for manslaughter.
Defense lawyers also called during the sentencing phase clinical psychologist Dr. Joseph Angelillo, who had tested Caleb Carrothers to further detail what they hoped would be seen as mitigating factors.
Angelillo said the dysfunctional family in which Carrothers grew up was “a few generations of psychiatric problems, legal problems, problems with substances, problems with depression.” Neither Marco nor Caleb ever had a father figure except during their mother’s short-lived marriage to a man who reportedly treated them badly.
“Without that (male role model), research shows you tend to get more delinquency, more acting out,” Angelillo said.
He also described the defendant as “rebellious,” “antisocial,” “a poor problem solver,” “narcissistic,” “self-medicating” with alcohol and street drugs and projecting a fake cockiness to mask deep anxiety.
Despite the mitigating factors in Carrothers’ background, Angelillo said, “I did not find he met any criteria for incompetency or insanity.”
Prosecutors noted the defendant didn’t just fall into crime in July 2009.
He had been released on parole 39 days earlier after serving nearly 10 years of a 20-year sentence he’d been given for four armed robberies.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.