UPDATE: State high court upholds death sentence for Mooreville man

JACKSON – The Mississippi Supreme Court has rejected arguments from death row inmate William Wilson that a trial judge’s failure to dismiss his lawyers barred a plea deal that might have spared his life.

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Wilson’s capital murder and death sentence.

Wilson pleaded guilty to capital murder in the 2005 slaying of a 2-year-old girl, Mallory Conlee. Wilson, of Mooreville, was sentenced to death in 2007 in Lee County. He also received 20 years for felonious child abuse.

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.

The court record showed Wilson agreed to plead guilty in March 2007 in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. However, when questioned by Circuit Judge Thomas J. Gardner III, Wilson said he thought his attorneys could have done a better job.

Wilson claimed he hadn’t communicated or seen much of his court-appointed attorneys between his 2005 arrest and his plea hearing.

Gardner halted the hearing.

According to the court record, prosecutors withdrew the plea deal, the case continued with Wilson and his same attorneys and Wilson pleaded guilty in May 2005. With no plea bargain, Gardner sentenced Wilson to death.

On appeal, Wilson argued that Gardner should have replaced Wilson’s attorneys instead of letting the case go on with the same ones. That action coupled with the deficient performance by his lawyers, Wilson claimed, led to the death sentence when prosecutors declined to reach another plea deal.

Prosecutors contended Wilson’s lawyers worked with prosecutors on the plea agreement and Wilson’s exchange with the judge showed they had explained it fully to him. They said the ineffectiveness issue only came up when the judge asked Wilson if he was satisfied with what had been done for him.

Prosecutors said they could not guess why Wilson took a chance to continue with a guilty plea at a second plea hearing and leave the sentencing to the judge when the death sentence remained a possibility.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, said a trial judge can accept or reject a guilty plea. The majority of the court said the trial judge refused to accept the plea because Wilson wasn’t happy with his attorneys which was within the judge’s discretion.

Justice Jim Kitchens, in a dissenting opinion, said the court record showed Wilson’s pretrial contact with his lawyer was limited to brief meetings just before court hearings.

Kitchens said the trial judge should have held a hearing on why Wilson was dissatisfied with his lawyers and what steps could have alleviated the problem.

Read more in Friday’s NEMS Daily Journal.

The Associated Press