High court hears challenge to Wilson death sentence

JACKSON – William Wilson’s life depended on a plea deal his attorneys made in his 2007 Lee County murder case.
The Mississippi Supreme Court will consider whether any legal issues exist to warrant a new look at his death sentence from Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner III.
Wilson, 29, does not contest that he killed 2-year-old Malorie Conlee while committing child abuse in April 2005. The child was his girlfriend’s daughter.
At the time of the girl’s death, authorities said they had received a report that a motorcycle had fallen on the child’s head. An autopsy showed bruises all over her body and third-degree burns to her feet.
Authorities said the bruises were in several stages of healing, indicating that they had occurred over a time.
Tuesday, the full court heard arguments from attorneys representing Wilson and the state of Mississippi about whether Wilson should be given a new sentence.
Also before them is whether Judge Gardner was wrong not to replace those attorneys when Wilson’s vocal dissatisfaction with them caused the judge to abort his deal to avoid the death penalty.
And the nine justices may consider whether the lack of communication with those attorneys – Will Bristow and James Johnstone – led to a second plea and the death sentence.
The court’s deadline to rule on Monday’s appeal is Dec. 3.
In March 2007, Wilson appeared before Gardner to plead guilty in an agreement that offered him life without parole.
When Gardner asked if he were satisfied with his appointed counsel, Wilson said “not really” and, in two letters, claimed they had spent little time with him preparing for trial.
With that testimony, Gardner aborted the sentencing and sent Wilson back to jail.
When Wilson agreed to plead guilty again, Gardner pronounced his death sentence May 30, 2007.
Wilson’s appeal attorney, Andre’ de Gruy of Jackson, told the court Tuesday that Wilson is entitled to be sentenced anew because his counsel failed to represent him effectively.
And questions remained among justices about why Gardner didn’t replace Wilson’s attorneys if their client’s dissatisfaction with high enough to abort the initial plea.
Justice Jim Kitchens asked Assistant Attorney General Patrick McNamara, “Doesn’t Wilson’s dissatisfaction suggest his counsel were not prepared for trial?”
Wilson told Gardner in a letter that he had seen Bristow only at a hearing and one 30-minute jail visit. He said he did not meet Johnstone until his plea hearing.
Tuesday’s direct appeal, the first time the Supreme Court has considered the case, addresses issues of law that occurred during the trial.
If Wilson’s conviction is affirmed, he still has another state Supreme Court appeal route called post-conviction relief, which can include other issues, especially about whether his rights were denied to effective counsel or to a fair trial.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal