UPDATE: Williams seeks new trial in UM student's slaying

JACKSON — An attorney for David Williams told the Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday that Williams should get a new trial because of the absence of a jury instruction related to his claim that the stabbing death was part of a mutual suicide pact.

Williams is serving a life sentence for the 2005 murder of 21-year-old University of Mississippi student Demetria Bracey.

Attorney David Hill of Oxford said Circuit Judge Andrew Howorth, who presided over the case, refused to allow a jury instruction on aiding and abetting suicide.

“Mr. Williams was entitled to have the jury to have all of his options open to him so that they could balance the evidence based upon the instructions from the court and the guidance that they were given, and they were given none,” Hill argued to the Appeals Court.

Williams was convicted of murder in Lafayette County in 2007 and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. A judge denied Williams a new trial in 2008.

Bracey was a senior French major who was just weeks from graduating when she was killed. Her body, with a stab wound in the chest, was found in a closet of Williams’ Oxford apartment. Authorities said her body had been covered by clothes.

John Henry Jr., a state assistant attorney general, said the reason the jury instruction was not given is because no reasonable jury would believe Bracey’s death was a suicide. Physical evidence in the case shows Bracey did not kill herself, Henry said.

“She wasn’t just stabbed. She was strangled. She was alive when she was strangled,” Henry said. “And then after that this man spent three — maybe four — days in the apartment with this poor woman dead in a closet, eating pizza, drinking beer.”

Henry said Williams didn’t get help for Bracey and didn’t report her death to police. “All of this indicates guilty knowledge. This is a murder case,” Henry said.

The Appeals Court panel asked Hill whether he felt Williams’ actions after Bracey’s death contradict his client’s argument that he intended to kill himself.

“Mr. Williams stated to police investigators that he continued to try to kill himself through self-medication, alcohol and pills but was never able to accomplish the act,” Hill said. “Actually, Mr. Williams had a suicide attempt about six weeks before.”

Among the other issues raised by Williams in his motion for a new trial was that the jury didn’t hear the testimony from an Episcopal priest. The trial judge allowed the priest, the Rev. Ollie Rencher, to claim priest-penitent privilege about communications he had with Bracey.

According to the court record, shortly after Bracey’s death, Rencher volunteered a statement to Oxford police about what he knew of Bracey, saying she had told him she had thought about suicide and he had recommended she get help.

Timothy Brown/The Associated Press