By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Courtney Smith and Christine Jackson would be young adults. Instead they are in their graves – tiny graves.
Courtney was abducted from her Noxubee County home, assaulted and murdered 22 years ago. She was 3.
Christine was abducted from her Noxubee County home, assaulted and murdered 20 years ago. She was also 3.
Two weeks ago, Justin Albert Johnson, now 55, stood before Judge Lee Howard and told the judge he had killed both toddlers. “I wasn’t in my right mind when that happened,” The Macon Beacon quoted Johnson as telling the judge.
Judge Howard assigned Johnson to two life terms to be served consecutively and with no possibility of parole.
And that was that.
The brief courtroom session brought to an end a horrific series of events that illustrate just how depraved a person can be and how important it is to have the Mississippi Innocence Project.
Johnson, you see, was initially questioned but was not charged with killing Courtney or Christine. Two other men were. Both of them were convicted. One spent 10 years on Death Row and might well have been executed for a crime he did not commit.
Pause here for a moment to think about how truly heartless Johnson must be. He killed two children and discarded their bodies, one in a ditch and the other in a pond. For the better part of two decades he was silent as two men who had nothing to do with the crimes suffered in the state pen – and apparently would have had no problem with one of them being put to death.
It was the Innocence Project that changed the outcome. Not surprisingly, many initially saw the caseworkers in the Noxubee County cases as meddlers or, to use a term from the 1960s, “outside agitators.” From the start, the team members have had the imprimatur of novelist, lawyer and beloved Mississippian John Grisham, which helped. But they’re still viewed as a bunch of wistful do-gooders.
That shouldn’t be true, given the project’s track record. Now based at the Robert C. Khayat School of Law at the University of Mississippi, the project has resulted in inmates who have served a collective total of 77 years in prison being freed because they were conclusively shown not to have committed the crimes for which they were sentenced. This has not been achieved by “fancy lawyering,” by filing obscure motions on technicalities. In almost all cases, including the Noxubee County cases, DNA was the basis for review and conclusive proof that defendants were not guilty.
So, how has official Mississippi reacted?
Lawmakers reflect society. Quite naturally, we want to believe that anyone convicted of a crime has been proved conclusively guilty beyond any shadow of a doubt. It is discomfiting, to say the least, when prosecutors, jurors and judges get it wrong. But instead of trying to find ways to keep more mistakes from being made, our Legislature has decided to play defense. In 2009, the official response to the Innocence Project was to create a statutory payoff system for those wrongfully convicted. The payments – $50,000 per year up to a maximum of $500,000 – were designed to head off jury awards that would be even larger.
What the Legislature could do – with the full support of the Innocence Project – is create a system of mandatory DNA collection in violent crimes. The Legislature could authorize an array of post-conviction reviews. The Legislature could ordain public defender offices in each circuit court district so that full time defense attorneys would be paid to represent indigent defendants through trial and appeal levels. As things stand now, most districts appoint private attorneys to defense work, even when that is not their specialty. Many lawyers “pick up” criminal cases and the small checks that come with them merely to help with their office overhead. A consolidated office of defense specialists might cost more, but not much more.
The purpose of the Innocence Project here or in any other state where the organization operates is not to embarrass or shame state officials. The purpose is to spark improvements in the administration of justice.
Mississippi has about 27,000 people in state custody. Almost every one of them has earned every day of their time in prison.
But what about the few who didn’t? Shouldn’t the state work hard to find out who they are? Shouldn’t the state be aggressively determining how to avoid horror stories like the one from Noxubee County?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.