By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
Thomas Edwin Loden Jr. sits on Mississippi’s Death Row, convicted in 2001 of the kidnapping and gruesome rape and murder of an Itawamba County woman.
The anniversary of her death looms Friday.
As Mississippi faces its fifth execution this year, Loden is unlikely to face that possibility for some time as legal appeals play out.
Recently, his federal appeal asks Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. to throw out his death sentence because his local defense counsel gave him bad advice and failed to look sufficiently into his background to explain to his presiding judge why he did what he did.
“That’s absolutely not true,” said Tupelo attorney David Daniel, part of his original defense team and a former prosecutor now in private practice.
Daniel said he developed background information to present about his client, but when it came time to use it, Loden, a former Marine, adamantly refused to allow its submission.
“He wanted to uphold that spit-and-polished military image he had of himself,” Daniel said. “He didn’t want anybody to know what a monster he was.”
More than a decade later, appeals documents claim Loden suffered emotional traumas from childhood deprivations and witnessing the sexual abuse of his mother, as well as his and his sister’s later physical abuse at the hands of another relative.
Friday marks the 12th anniversary of the crimes for which Loden seeks to save his own life.
On the night of June 22, 2000, 16-year-old Leesa Marie Gray was kidnapped by Loden as she drove home from work.
The next day, authorities discovered her nude body, her hands and feet bound, under the folded down seat in the rear of Loden’s van. They also found a camcorder and videos on which Loden, then a Vicksburg-based military recruiter, recorded the horror of Gray’s torture and death.
Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner agreed the “heinous” nature of the crime deserved the death penalty.
Loden is one of 10 awaiting execution from Northeast Mississippi convictions, nearly 20 percent of Death Row.
The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman’s fifth execution this year is set Wednesday for 49-year-old Gary Carl Simmons.
He was convicted of shooting and dismembering a man in Pascagoula over a drug debt in 1996.
The Associated Press reports that the last time Mississippi executed more than four inmates in any single year was in 1961, when five died in the gas chamber. Eight executions occurred in each of the years 1955 and 1956. In those days, inmates were put to death for crimes like armed robbery, rape or murder.
Today, the only crime punishable by death in Mississippi is capital murder – a murder that happens during the commission of another felony.
As in Loden’s case, it’s not unusual to see separate appeals counsel claim that trial attorneys, often public defenders, were ineffective.
While Biggers will make up his mind about their efforts, few within the state’s justice system believe the public defender system attracts the best talent, although there are exceptions.
Tucker Carrington at the University of Mississippi is with The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
He is blunt about the defense of the poor.
“Indigent defense in this state is a joke,” said Carrington, who’s worked successfully to overturn decades-old convictions.
Don Cabana, a former Mississippi corrections commissioner and author of the book, “Death At Midnight: The Confessions of an Executioner,” said the state’s execution increase “was absolutely predictable” and has more to do with timing and the pace of appeals than anything else.
Some attorneys who work appeals for death row inmates claim there’s more to it – that prior to 2008, the state’s Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel mishandled its work.
“This is more than just the usual things moving at the usual speed,” said Jim Craig, a longtime advocate for death row inmates. “This is a breakdown in the system of providing lawyers to poor people when the state is trying to execute them.”
The Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel was created by the Legislature in 2000 to represent indigent death row inmates in appeals.
For Loden, he’s rolled all his dice on tossing out his death-penalty sentence.
He never filed appeals to any of the other convictions except to capital murder, so any challenge on those has run out.