Miss. executes man for slaying of wife of ex-boss

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Pres


Miss. executes man for 1995 sex slaying
HOLBROOK MOHR,Associated Press

PARCHMAN, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi man who was an 18-year-old Eagle Scout when he was charged with murder was executed Tuesday for the 1995 sexual assault and slaying of the wife of his former boss.

Larry Matthew Puckett, 35, was put to death by injection and pronounced dead at 6:18 p.m. Tuesday, authorities said. Puckett was convicted of the Oct. 14, 1995, killing of Rhonda Hatten Griffis, a 28-year-old mother of two who lived northeast of Hattiesburg in Petal.

Puckett said “no” when asked if he had a final statement. Wearing glasses, he stared up at the ceiling as he lay strapped to the gurney, not looking over in the direction of the victim’s parents. He took several deep breaths as the drugs began flowing into his arms and then appeared to fall asleep.

While Puckett’s supporters claimed that the woman’s husband killed her in a jealous rage, the victim’s mother said she found Puckett in the home holding an axe handle, which prosecutors said was used in the killing.

“I caught him in her house with the club in his hand,” Nancy Hatten told The Associated Press on Friday. “Her husband wasn’t anywhere on the premises at the time. He drove up later.”

Griffis’ husband found his wife’s battered body in the living room, according to court records. Puckett had worked as a landscaper for Griffis’ husband, and the crime occurred weeks before Puckett was scheduled to leave for basic training with the Navy.

Puckett, who ran from the home, was captured two days later. He confessed to being at the Griffis’ home to burglarize it, but claimed Griffis’ husband killed her, according to court records. Puckett was sentenced to death on Aug. 5, 1996.

Supporters who insisted Puckett was innocent rallied Monday at the state Capitol in Jackson alongside the man’s mother, Mary Puckett. They raised a sign that read “Take a Stand, Save Matt” and many wore black T-shirts with words in white lettering: “Save Matt.”

But Gov. Phil Bryant refused to grant a reprieve after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon denied his final petition. Bryant said in a statement as the execution hour loomed that he had reviewed the case but decided against intervening.

“In light of Mr. Puckett’s having been convicted by a jury of his peers more than 15 years ago and after a review of the facts associated with his case, I have decided not to grant clemency and will not delay the execution,” Bryant’s statement said. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family.”

Earlier, Puckett spent his final hours receiving his parents, brothers, uncle and a spiritual adviser at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where the death chamber is housed. He requested a last meal of Macadamia nut pancakes, shrimp and grits, ice cream cake, caramel candy and root beer.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said the man’s mood was “somber” in the hours before the execution. Epps said he talked to Puckett about his childhood and becoming an Eagle Scout, but he did not want to talk about the crime for which he was convicted.

“He said there’s more to the story and he denied committing the crime,” Epps said.

Epps said Puckett requested that his relatives and lawyer not watch the execution. Griffis’ parents were on the witness list.

Thousands of people had signed an online petition in support of Puckett, insisting on his innocence. They had hoped to persuade Bryant to stop the execution.

Puckett has spent much of his time on death row writing letters to friends and family and essays on a variety of topics, including musing about what it will be like to be executed.

“Now picture yourself surrounded by big burly men with firm grips on you as they direct you to the execution chamber. The excitement and base fear course through you like no other time in your life. You sweat, you pant, you want them to stop. They won’t, they can’t, the whole process is inexorable,” he wrote on a website that prints prisoners’ letters. “Ironically, at the moment of your death your body proves to you are the most alive.”

Puckett has requested that his body be released to his mother, Mary Puckett.

Mary Puckett said at Monday’s rally that her son’s treatment was unfair from the start.

“Like a lot of people, I thought if someone was convicted of a crime, they were probably guilty,” Puckett said. “But if this can happen to us, it can happen to anyone.”

Hatten said she’s convinced the right man was convicted in her daughter’s death. Hatten described her daughter as a woman who deeply loved her husband and children and stayed busy taking care of them.

An only child, Griffis was nearly finished with college when she became pregnant and dropped out to make a home. She hoped someday to finish her degree in social work at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“She loved us and helped us and did what she could do for us,” Hatten said. “She was always a joy to us.”

Another Mississippi death row inmate, William Mitchell, 61, faces scheduled execution Thursday. Mitchell had been out of prison on parole for less than a year for a 1975 murder when he was charged with raping and killing Patty Milliken, 38.

Milliken disappeared on Nov. 21, 1995, after walking out of a convenience store where she worked in Biloxi to have a cigarette with Mitchell. Her body was found the next day under a bridge. She had been strangled, beaten, sexually assaulted, and repeatedly run over by a vehicle, according to court records.