By Lena Mitchell
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
CORINTH – Executives with the Discovery Channel television show “On the Case With Paula Zahn” are keeping information close, but were in Corinth, Farmington, Booneville and other areas around Northeast Mississippi this week videotaping for an upcoming episode.
Assistant District Attorney Richard Bowen of Mississippi’s 1st Circuit Court District is a central figure in the show’s plan to revisit the 1985 bludgeoning death of Stacie Pannell, then an 18-year-old student at Northeast Mississippi Community College.
Associate producer Kristin Ilagan said she could not discuss any aspect of the work they were doing, and a message to executive producer Larry Israel was not returned.
However, several of the people involved with the almost three-decades-old case are still in the area and have vivid memories of it.
“I was called to the scene while the investigative unit was there and it was an awful, awful scene,” said Bowen, who prosecuted the case with District Attorney John Young.
On the night of Oct. 8, 1985, Pannell, of Ripley, was bludgeoned to death while in bed in her dorm room.
In the early stages of the investigation it appeared that there had been an intruder who attempted to rape her: The window to her room was open and the screen had been cut, giving the impression of a suspect who had entered or left the room through the window.
After several months the attempted rape scenario was ruled out, but Bowen said there was not sufficient evidence to make an arrest, although Pannell’s boyfriend at the time was an early person of interest.
Almost a year into the investigation it was one of Pannell’s suitemates, 21-year-old Stephanie Alexander of Hernando, who was charged in her death.
“No one had suspected any of the suitemates or anyone in the dorm,” Bowen said.
Current Northeast President Johnny Allen was a classroom teacher at the time, but had no connection to the investigation and didn’t know either of the students involved.
“I think there are only three of us who were here at the time left on staff now,” Allen said. “What I do remember is a collective sadness that one of our own students had died on our campus. There was uncertainty about how this happened, who did it, and what threat did it pose to campus safety. We went to bed that night thinking our students were in a safe environment, and we woke up the next morning to find out that, at least for one student, it was not.”
Dr. Joe Edd Morris, a Tupelo psychologist, was teaching psychology at Northeast at the time, and offered counseling services to the campus for those who wanted it in the wake of the tragedy.
Stephanie Alexander was the first student to take advantage of the offer.
“Law enforcement asked me about using hypnosis in the case, and I said I was willing to try,” Morris said. “I had three sessions with her, and after the third session I told them I thought she was faking and they might want to pursue an alternative.”
The breakthrough that pointed to Alexander as a suspect, and not simply a potential witness, came from a law enforcement official from Illinois.
“One of our local investigators had been to a seminar where he heard about a new interrogation technique from Steve Rhoads, a police chief in the Chicago suburb of East Hazel Crest, Ill.,” Bowen said. “They brought him in for him to interview Alexander to try to see if there were memories of that night she might have suppressed. She was supposed to have been in her room asleep when it happened.”
The neuro linguistic programming techniques Rhoads said he used to elicit the truth from Alexander were relatively new and untested at the time. In the years since then, however, NLP has become an integral part of the training curriculum for law enforcement interviewing and interrogation.
Despite her confession, the case went to trial with Gerald Chatham – now a judge in Mississippi’s 17th Circuit Court District – as defense attorney for Alexander.
“A main part of his defense was that she was under my hypnotic trance for a full year and confessed under that trance,” Morris said. “Obviously it didn’t work.”
At the end of the 1987 trial Alexander was convicted of manslaughter in the heat of passion, in a case presided over by Judge Thomas Gardner. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but was paroled after nine-and-a-half years. She now lives in DeSoto County.
“It was a sad and confusing time for all of us, and not solved as quickly as all of us had wanted it to be, but none of us experienced the tragedy of Stacie’s family,” Northeast’s Allen said. “A family lost a beloved daughter that day and we lost a sense of security.”