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Mississippi man convicted of murder and previously sentenced to death will now be paroled

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Mississippi man convicted of murder and previously sentenced to death will now be paroled

Those convicted of murder are not eligible for parole in Mississippi, but court rulings paved the way for a man previously sentenced to to receive parole and be scheduled for release.

Frederick Bell had been serving a sentence at the at Parchman for the May 1991 shooting of 21-year-old Robert “Bert” Bell (no relation) during a robbery in Grenada County. 

Capital murder typically carries the death penalty. But after years of appeals and filing for post-conviction relief, Frederick Bell was resentenced to life without parole and then life with the possibility of parole. He was approved for release by the state Parole Board in August and is set to leave prison as early as Monday. 

Family members of Bert Bell have been attending Parole Board meetings since 2015 and thought Frederick Bell wouldn’t be paroled, but last month Gene Bell, Bert’s younger brother, received a letter saying Frederick Bell’s parole had been approved, according to a copy shared with Mississippi Today. 

The family wants the Parole Board to reconsider. More than 50 community members from Grenada County and beyond have signed a petition addressed to Gov. Tate Reeves asking him to reverse the board’s decision. State law enforcement groups and residents have written to Parole Board Chair Jeffery Belk and board members. Several lawmakers have also spoken about Frederick Bell’s parole. 

“We should never parole a violent criminal,” Gene Bell wrote in a Thursday email to Mississippi Today. “That is not the way to reduce the population in the penal system and is certainly not the way to protect every law-abiding citizen in regards to our safety.”

Belk wrote to Gene Bell about the board’s decision to parole Frederick Bell, saying he understood it would be a disappointment to the family. 

In a previous interview with Mississippi Today, Belk said when considering parole, the board looks at a range of available information, including input from victims and their families and the person’s record while incarcerated, to make a decision. 

“However, in our opinion Bell has been rehabilitated and at this point we feel that parole supervision will be more beneficial than further incarceration,” Belk’s letter states. 

Belk and a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about Bell’s parole.

Bert Bell at his high school graduation.

On May 6, 1991, then-19-year-old Frederick Bell and a group of men went into Sparks Stop ‘N Go in Grenada County where 21-year-old Bert Bell was working. They bought chips and beer and went outside to eat, according to court records. 

Frederick Bell wanted to go to Memphis and said he needed money so he decided to rob the store, according to court records. He went back inside with one of the group members, Anthony Doss. Gunshots rang out from the store, and Bert Bell was shot nine times and killed. 

Later that day, Frederick Bell and three of the men from the group drove to Memphis, where Bell shot and killed another man, 20-year-old Tommy White. 

In 1993, the Grenada County Circuit Court convicted Frederick Bell and Doss for the killing of Bert Bell. A jury found Frederick Bell killed the store clerk, contemplated using lethal force during the robbery and intended to kill Bert Bell, which factored into its decision to impose the death penalty, according to court records.

Before the 1993 trial, Frederick Bell and another man from the group, Frank Coffey, were charged for the Memphis shooting and pleaded guilty, according to court records.

For years Frederick Bell sought to appeal his Mississippi conviction, including an unsuccessful direct appeal with the state Supreme Court in 1998, multiple filings for post-conviction relief and denied requests for the to take up his case. 

Gene Bell said it is a shame for anyone convicted of a violent to continue to appeal because victims and their families don’t get an opportunity to appeal any decisions made by the courts. 

In 2011, the state Supreme Court found Frederick Bell was entitled to an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he was mentally disabled. This was based on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found it was cruel and unusual to execute mentally disabled people.

Doctors at the Mississippi State Hospital evaluated Frederick Bell and determined he was mentally disabled.

As a result, in 2013 the Grenada County Circuit Court sentenced Bell to life without parole. He appealed, and in 2015 the State Supreme Court voted 5-4 in his favor. On June 5, 2015, the Grenada County Circuit Court sentenced him to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. 

Gene Bell said his family was devastated to learn his brother’s killer was eligible for parole. He began attending Parole Board hearings in 2015 to speak against Frederick Bell’s release. 

“Do I like doing this? No,” Gene Bell said. “But it’s my duty. It’s my duty for my family and for the law abiding citizens of the great state of Mississippi.”

The family’s main concern is about public safety. Gene Bell said people shouldn’t have to fear the system has failed them by allowing someone who has committed violent crimes out of prison.

A person granted parole will serve the remainder of their sentence under supervision. They are required to report to a parole officer and follow rules laid out by the Mississippi Department of Corrections. 

Gene Bell said the current Parole Board did not indicate it would parole Frederick Bell. 

Rather, the board told him it would extend the time between Frederick Bell’s hearings from one year to up to five years. This would be done out of consideration for Bert Bell’s family. 

“(T)his was too brutal of a case for me and family to have to endure such a horrible date in history this often,” Gene Bell said. 

He doesn’t understand what changed this summer between the July meeting that felt positive and the August one when the board granted Frederick Bell parole. 

The Rev. C.J. Rhodes of Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson is President of Clergy for Prison Reform, which is focused on criminal justice issues including parole. 

Parole can be complicated and should be viewed on a case-by-case basis, he said. It should also consider those affected, including victims, their families, the incarcerated people and their families and community. 

The Christian faith recognizes redemption and how incarcerated people can be rehabilitated and demonstrate that after prison. 

“This becomes a test case if we want to apply that particular theology,” Rhodes said. 

The group wants to reimagine corrections in a way that doesn’t emphasize imprisoning people, he said. Rhodes said there is an opportunity to make victims and victimizers whole again, and redemption and rehabilitation shouldn’t be lost in conversation about criminal justice reform

Monday is Frederick Bell’s expected release date. Multiple efforts to reach an attorney for Frederick Bell were not successful. 

Sen. Angela Burks Hill (R-) said in an interview with Supertalk Radio that his release from prison is likely to be delayed because the Parole Board did not follow a state law that requires public notification in a newspaper in the county where the crime was committed.  

Gene Bell remembers his brother as a happy-go lucky person who enjoyed the outdoors and loved his family and friends. 

“We miss Bert tremendously,” Gene Bell said. “We often wonder what he would have become in life.  What would his brother- and sister- in-law think about him and what would his nieces and nephews think about him? How would we all interact as family?”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Gulfport man indicted on hate crime charge after burning cross to intimidate, threaten neighbors

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-09-23 13:40:24

A man faces more than 20 years in prison and fines if he is convicted of a hate .

The Justice Department on Friday announced that Axel C. Cox, 23, has been indicted on charges of criminal interference with the right to fair housing and using fire to commit a federal felony.

The charges stem from a December 3, 2020 incident in which Cox burned a cross in his front yard and used threatening and racially derogatory comments toward his black neighbors in an effort to intimidate them. Allegedly, Cox chose to burn the cross because of the victims’ race.

The…

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‘I cannot think of anything negative:’ Letters from friends, family paint picture of Ole Miss grad charged with murder

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‘I cannot think of anything negative:’ Letters from friends, family paint picture of Ole Miss grad charged with murder

A superintendent, a country singer, and the Grenada County sheriff were among the 69 friends, family and local officials who wrote letters last month asking a Lafayette County Circuit Court judge to release Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr., the University of Mississippi graduate charged with the murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee. 

As nearly a dozen protesters outside chanted so loudly they could be heard in the second-floor courtroom on Aug. 9, the letters from many of the people who sat behind Herrington advocated for a different outcome to the nearly six-hour hearing – for Judge Gray Tollison to release the 22-year-old to his parents. 

One family friend put it this way: “Truthfully, I cannot think of anything negative when speaking on behalf of Sheldon Timothy Herrington.” 

The letters to Tollison – all written before evidence was presented at the hearing – described the Herrington that his community in Grenada knew: Not Tim, but “Timmy,” the soft-spoken son of an “influential” family who wore glasses in high school, sang in the choir and played guitar at church, and always called his teachers “sir” and “ma’am.” 

A photo of Tim Herrington’s high school graduation that his mother provided the Lafayette County Circuit Court.

“He was an excellent student and worked extremely hard toward reaching his educational goals,” wrote David Daigneault, the superintendent of the Grenada School District who taught Herrington’s father, aunt and uncle at Grenada High School. “Timmy is well respected by his fellow classmates and teachers.” 

It’s typical for friends and family to write character letters to help their accused loved one obtain bond. In Herrington’s case, the amount of letters is notable and reflects the esteem his family has in Grenada, a small town of about 12,500 people an hour’s drive south of Oxford on MS-Highway 7. 

To Tevin Coleman, Herrington’s half-brother, the number of people who wrote letters is demonstrative of his brother’s innocence. 

“I mean, you seen the people that got up and the people that have known him since he was a child all the way to now,” Coleman told Mississippi Today. “When it comes down to it, we’re all in shock, we’re all devastated, and we are all looking forward to proving his innocence.” 

Despite these pleas, Tollison denied Herrington bond after the prosecution presented evidence that he was planning to move to Dallas and had, the day before Lee was murdered, looked up flights to Singapore. He’ll wait in the Lafayette County Detention Center for a grand jury hearing, likely some time next year. 

Meanwhile, still have not found Lee’s body more than 75 days after he went missing. Lee is the third feminine-presenting queer person killed in Mississippi this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign – a number that reflects the high rate of violence against the state’s small LGBTQ community. 

The Oxford Police Department has not shared new information about the case since the preliminary hearing when Ryan Baker, a detective, testified that Herrington drove a moving truck to Grenada the same day that he allegedly killed Lee and retrieved a shovel and wheelbarrow from his parent’s house in the GlenBrook neighborhood. 

But it’s unclear to what extent OPD is working with law enforcement in Grenada. The sheriff, Rolando Fair, told Mississippi Today he could not comment because “the investigation is not my investigation” and no one from Oxford has reached out to him personally even though officers executed a search warrant on Herrington’s parent’s house in late July. 

In his letter to the judge, Fair wrote he has known Herrington’s family for over 20 years. 

“They have been pillars in our community and in the church,” Fair wrote. “Sheldon and Tina Herrington are members of various organizations that have helped and changed so many people’s lives. I have also known Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr. since he was a small child, never had any problems with him.” 

Lee’s killing has garnered national attention and sparked a movement – called Justice for Jay Lee – to keep his legacy alive by protesting outside Herrington’s hearings and pushing for more protections for LGBTQ people in Oxford. 

Braylyn Johnson, a member of Justice for Jay Lee who was his roommate in college, also knew Herrington through campus organizations like the Black Student Union and the student government

She said the evidence against Herrington does not sound like the person she knew, but that the disconnect did not make her believe he is innocent. She referred to the Snapchat messages Herrington sent Lee after they hooked up on the morning of July 8 and his Google search, “how long does it take to strangle someone gabby petito.”

“It was cryptic to me as somebody that had been around Tim for all of these years and had been acquainted with him,” she said. “Those messages did not seem like they came from Tim, but … from I don’t know, John Wayne Gacy, somebody weird.” 

Coleman said he thought the prosecution made assumptions about his brother during the preliminary hearing and that he couldn’t tell if all of the evidence presented was factual.

“I don’t truly know in regard to, if that was really Tim that sent the Snapchat messages,” he said. “I mean, they’re saying it is, so there’s a possibility that it is him in the Snapchat messages, so I mean, that could be factual.” 

At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor, Tiffany Kilpatrick, argued Herrington lived a double-life unknown to his family and friends in Grenada. 

Many people from Grenada wrote that the did not sound like the Herrington they knew. 

“We continue to follow the unbelievable that Tim has been arrested and is facing an incredible charge,” country singer Charlie Worsham and his parents wrote to the judge. “We find this difficult to believe and completely incongruent with the person we know.” 

According to the Worshams’ letter, Herrington taught guitar classes with a minority outreach program for their nonprofit, Follow Your Heart Arts, minority outreach program. 

Multiple letters describe Herrington’s family as “exceptional” and “god-fearing,” a reputation that comes in large part from Abundant Life Assembly, an Apostolic Christian church founded 40 years ago by Herrington’s grandfather, James. Herrington’s father, Sheldon, is also involved as an assistant pastor. 

The brick church sits on a grass hill a few minutes from downtown. Herrington grew up following his grandfather around the property like a shadow, James wrote in his letter to the judge, assisting with clean-up after fellowship dinners, playing guitar at worship, teaching Sunday school and mentoring young boys. 

“He has always wanted to be like his Papaw,” James wrote, adding later, “He really is a great young man.”

Herrington’s arrest on July 22 was devastating, James wrote, and he was praying not just for his family, but for Lee’s. If the judge granted Herrington bail, James wrote that “with his influence,” he knew his grandson would comply with any stipulations. 

Mississippi Today called the church to reach James. Sheldon answered and said the family is “not permitted to talk to anyone,” but Coleman called a reporter a few hours later.

Several members of Herrington’s family work in the school district. His mother, Tina, is an administrator in the central office and his uncle, Reginald, is an assistant principal for an elementary school. 

Daigneault, the superintendent, was subpoenaed by his attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, to testify during the bond hearing. Herrington’s father was subpoenaed too, though neither were called to the stand. When reached by a Mississippi Today reporter, Daigneault said he will help any student in the school district but had no additional comment.

Twenty-six letters were from current and former teachers and administrators in the district, as well as the principals of the elementary, middle and high schools. Many recalled watching Herrington grow up and how he was respectful in the classroom.

“‘Yes Mam’ and ‘No Mam’ are just a natural part of his vocabulary,” one teacher wrote. 

His teachers noted Herrington had never been in trouble before. 

“I never saw Timothy act violently toward anybody,” wrote a former principal of Grenada Middle School who now works with Herrington’s mom in the central office. “From my experiences with Timmy, I can’t imagine him committing this charge of murder. I can’t even imagine Timmy getting in a fight.”

Herrington’s family’s reputation is proof he would not flee the state, a former elementary school counselor in Grenada wrote.

“For generations, the Herringtons have worked hard, studied well, earned college degrees, chosen admirable careers to make a true difference for others, and established successful lives in their community,” the counselor wrote. “Their accomplishments do not make their child a flight risk.” 

Johnson, the member of Justice for Jay Lee, said that she feels like people in Oxford who had initially defended Herrington stopped talking about the case once they saw the evidence from last month’s hearing.  

She said that when communities ignore cases like Lee’s, it contributes to continued violence against queer people. 

“These aren’t the type of stories that people should be using for a ‘wow factor,’” she said. “These are the types of stories that should be used as an example so that actual change can happen.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi parole rates lower – Mississippi Today

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A year later, parole rates lower than before law went into effect

One year after a law expanded parole eligibility to more people incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, the state’s parole grant rate has declined by more than a third, a sign criminal justice reform advocates say shows the law isn’t being fully implemented. 

Senate Bill 2795, known as the Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act, became law in July 2021 with the goal of giving more people the opportunity to be heard by the Mississippi Parole Board and potentially be released from prison. As a result, about 5,700 additional people are expected to become parole eligible within the next five years, according to an estimate in the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force’s January report. 

FWD.us, a criminal justice and immigration reform group, supported SB 2795. Once the law was implemented, results were encouraging; the parole grant rate climbed and the prison population rate declined to its lowest point in more than 20 years, the group said. 

By November 2021, the parole grant rate reached a high of 93% and the board held over 1,000 parole hearings, according to numbers from the Mississippi Department of Corrections obtained by Mississippi Today. But soon after, parole rates and hearings began dropping each month. In July 2022, the most recent data available, the grant rate was 40% and the board held 633 hearings. 

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“Parole grant rates have fallen by more than half, reducing the incentives of people in Mississippi’s prisons to participate in programs and prepare to safely reenter society,” FWD.us State Director Alesha Judkins said in a statement to Mississippi Today. 

Judkins said parole is an evidence-based policy that gives people second chances, reunites them with their families and community and curbs taxpayer spending. It is also a way to address Mississippi’s long prison sentences. 

Parole Board Chair Jeffery Belk stepped into his role at the beginning of the year, around the time the board was coming down from working through a wave of hearings spurred by parole eligibility expansion taking effect. 

He said the board is aware that since he’s become chairman, the parole grant rate has fallen. Belk said the numbers don’t dictate decisions, and the board looks at a range of available information to decide whether to grant parole. 

“I would rather have the numbers be true and accurate and go back and look at them then just ‘we did whatever we did to get the numbers down’ mentality,” he said during an interview with Missisisppi Today. 

When writing the law, Belk said legislators had faith that the Parole Board would review and determine who would receive parole and who wouldn’t. 

Generally, a person can become eligible for parole after serving a certain amount of time on their sentence and having been convicted of a that is parole eligible.

Under SB 2795, those convicted of nonviolent crimes and non habitual drug offenses committed after June 30, 1995 must serve either 25% of their sentence or 10 years before becoming parole eligible. 

Those who committed a violent crime must serve half their sentence or 20 years, and people convicted of robbery with a deadly weapon, a drive-by shooting or carjacking must serve 60% of their sentence or 25 years. 

People who have reached the age of 60 and served at least 10 years of their sentence for a parole-eligible crime can also receive it.

Capital offenses, murder, drug trafficking, sex crimes and being a habitual offender are among the crimes in the state that are not eligible for parole. 

When Gov. Tate Reeves signed the Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act in April 2021, he called it “a measured approach to (second) chances” and said it would be a “net positive for (Mississippi)” with proper implementation. 

Under SB 2795, a parole hearing date shall be set when a person is within 30 days of their parole eligibility date. 

Belk said there is a misunderstanding that a parole eligibility date means automatic release or sentence reduction. He said he often gets emails from family members of incarcerated people asking why they haven’t been released. 

Newly-parole eligible people have had hearings, Belk said, but some may not be ready for release because they have not had access to programs such as skills and job training to succeed outside of prison. 

If someone is not ready for parole, he said the board will give them time, maybe a year, to be reconsidered. 

“Now that they’re parole eligible, just because they missed their first parole eligibility date, doesn’t mean they’re going to miss their next one if they start taking advantage of (programs),” Belk said. 

In an Aug. 17 interview with Supertalk Radio, MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain said he asked the parole board not to approve parole for gang members to protect public safety and to send a message that gang membership in prison won’t help. 

“So that kind of makes the (prison) numbers spike up, but it’s public safety and that’s what we’re all about,” he said.

In response, Belk reiterated that the Parole Board has shifted from a numbers-driven perspective and takes time to make tough decisions about parole, including for those who are gang members. 

While parole hearings have decreased, Belk said there has been a related wave of hearings to determine whether someone should have their parole revoked. A revocation may happen if a person commits a new crime or fails to report to a parole officer for a certain period of time. 

Belk said the board will give the person a chance to clear up any issues to be able to continue on parole. Otherwise, the person will be returned to prison. 

As the parole rate has fallen, the state is seeing its prison population increase. Mississippi is a world leader in incarceration. The prison population has grown and is higher than last year when parole eligibility expansion became law, according to MDOC records. 

Judkins, of FWD.us, said less opportunities for parole and a growing prison population don’t just hurt people who are incarcerated. Those situations also don’t improve public safety and can cost taxpayers more. 

“Unfortunately, the rapidly declining parole grant rate is not only blunting the impact of the new law but also denying meaningful opportunities for release to those who were parole eligible before the new law,” she said.  

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AG’s office ignores forensic nurses’ questions about Plan B

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Sexual assault nurses asked the AG’s office if Plan B is legal. They never got a response.

Mississippi nurses who take care of sexual assault victims are worried that the state’s ban could force them to stop offering emergency contraception – and they’re not getting any answers from the state’s chief legal officer. 

Months ago, following the Dobbs ruling that allowed an abortion ban to take effect in Mississippi, a group of forensic nurses reached out to Lynn Fitch’s office for guidance. 

Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff, never answered their questions about abortion laws – including whether emergency contraception was legal.

When pressed by Mississippi Today, Williams said, “You can look at the law. You can decide whether or not it’s legal. But it is.”

Williams said she had responded to the first part of the email that asked about a project to update the state’s rape kits, which she considered “most relevant,” and then thought the conversation was finished. 

The lack of response left the group of sexual assault nurse examiners concerned about potential legal consequences but determined to keep serving their patients. 

“I’m going to continue to provide the emergency contraception as long as we have it available and give the education and resources that I always have,” said Alizbeth Eaves, one of the state’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners and the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian. “But I am afraid that I’m going to be told, ‘That was against the law, and you’re in big trouble for it.’”

Through a records request, Mississippi Today obtained an email sent on July 18 by Shalotta Sharp, special projects coordinator at the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault, listing legal questions forensic nurses have about how the state’s new ban on abortion could affect their work.

Sharp, who has decades of experience as a certified sexual assault nurse examiner and is a long-time leader in the field in Mississippi, asked if emergency contraception is now outlawed. She also wanted clarification as to as whether medical professionals can refer a patient to an abortion provider in another state. 

Alizbeth Eaves, one of Mississippi’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners, is the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian.

“We are very thankful for any guidance and direction,” she concluded. “Thank you for your guidance and help!”

Williams responded that same day. She said she was on vacation but had proposed changes to victims compensation rules to review and should get back to Sharp soon. She did not acknowledge the other questions about the abortion law. 

Sharp never heard from Williams after that. She had reached out to the attorney general’s office, she said, because the chief law enforcement officer is responsible for providing clarity about what the law actually requires. 

“We certainly don’t want to be doing anything illegal,” she said. “But we also want what’s best for our patients.”

Mississippi Today told Sharp that Williams said emergency contraception is legal.

“If they’re saying that emergency contraception is not considered abortive, and it’s legal, literally that’s all I want to hear,” she said. 

Under the updated rape kit the Attorney General’s Office produced in collaboration with the Mississippi chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses this year, the state continues to reimburse medical providers for “medication treatment for prevention of… pregnancy” for victims of sexual assault, regardless of whether the victim reports to law enforcement. 

Only government entities, like counties, legislators and state agencies, can request official opinions from the attorney general, so Sharp’s email did not constitute a formal opinion request. Williams said the office can’t provide opinions outside that channel and that guidance for medical professionals comes from “any number of boards in the state.”

“We’ve been kind of left on read so to speak,” Eaves said. “It’s very frustrating that you’re going to have a trigger law in place and activate that trigger law without giving clear definitions and guidelines.”

Emergency contraception is recognized as part of the standard of care for victims of sexual assault by organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. A copper intrauterine device is the most effective form and is about 99.9% successful at preventing pregnancy if placed within 120 hours of intercourse. Pills like ella and Plan B are also used in Mississippi hospitals. 

Emergency contraception does not end a pregnancy– generally, it stops ovulation so an egg cannot be fertilized. But sometimes, the treatment can function by stopping a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. 

“Where are we calling conception at?” Eaves said. “Because if we’re talking about when the sperm meets the egg, that could potentially take emergency contraception away.”

Some pro-life organizations consider the medication a form of abortion. The advocacy group Pro-Life Mississippi lists “Morning After Pill” on its website under “Types of Abortion.”

Attorneys general in other states have been willing to publicly clarify that emergency contraception is legal. In Missouri, a spokesperson for the office said state law — which bans abortion except in medical emergencies — did not prohibit Plan B after a local hospital said it would stop providing the medication because the “law is ambiguous.”

Mississippi’s ban on abortion specifies that abortion ends “the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant.” During the period when emergency contraception is effective, pregnancy tests do not yet detect pregnancy

Registered nurses practices during a sexual assault examination a training for nurses at St. Dominic in Jackson, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

Forensic nurses interviewed by Mississippi Today said they are still providing emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault. 

“We’re just prescribing it left and right,” said one nurse, who asked that her name not be used because she did not have permission from her employer to talk to the media.

But she’s worried about the future. 

“That in itself is scary, that they (the Attorney General’s office) won’t just commit to saying, ‘Emergency contraception is okay,’” she said.

Eaves said the stakes of providing emergency contraception now feel higher than ever. If someone becomes pregnant following a rape, she is legally allowed to get an abortion in Mississippi only if “a formal charge of rape has been filed with an appropriate law enforcement official.”

That requirement makes Mississippi’s post-Dobbs abortion ban more restrictive than at almost any point in state history. When lawmakers added an exception to the state’s 1952 abortion ban for rape in 1966, they considered requiring a local chancery judge to first determine that a rape had occurred. But they rejected this idea because it would “require making the case a matter of public record and cause embarrassment to a wronged woman.” 

Now, state leaders appear to have no such concerns. 

Read the forensic nurses’ letter to the Attorney General’s Office:

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

MBI probing 4th Capitol Police officer-involved shooting since July 1

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-09-13 16:44:47

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is investigating a fourth Capitol officer-involved shooting in Jackson since July 1, the MBI confirmed.

The most recent shooting occurred at 10 p.m. on Monday near Northside Drive in Jackson, the MBI officials said in a press release.

MBI is still conducting an ongoing investigation and gathering evidence, the press release states.

None of the shootings have resulted in deaths, the MBI said.

MBI is investigating a Thursday shooting that killed a Mississippi police officer.

In efforts to combat in the Jackson area and free up Jackson Police officers, Gov. Tate Reeves in July 2021 expanded the territory covered by Jackson’s…

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1920’s Murder Mystery Theatre Performance at the Reef

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by Judy Smith, Our Mississippi Home

The time is the 1920s. There has been a murder, and your help is needed to solve the case and catch the killer. Have you ever wanted to take a trip back in time to the Roaring 20s when the parties were jumping, everyone was dancing, and the times were definitely changing? Or maybe it has been your secret desire to be a detective or sleuth to solve the of the century?

If this sounds intriguing and fun to you, then you’ll love the 1920s Murder Mystery Dinner Show at the Sky Bar at the Reef on Beach Boulevard in , Sunday, August 21. It will definitely be a night like none other.

The Improbable Cause Mystery Theatre brings you right into the middle of the action. “It’s a ‘20’s style murder mystery dinner show where YOU become the detective!” Every Improbable Cause…

This article first appeared on Our Mississippi Home.

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Jay Lee: Police say killing doesn’t reflect threat to LGBTQ community

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Three weeks after arrest, police say Ole Miss student killing does not reflect threat to LGBTQ community

The Oxford Department released a statement Friday afternoon that the killing of Jimmie “Jay” Lee, a Black student who was well-known in the town’s LGBTQ community, is an “isolated incident” that does not reflect a broader threat to queer people in Mississippi. 

The statement comes three days after a Lafayette County judge determined there was probable cause for police to arrest Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old graduate, for Lee’s murder, and that he should be held without bond. 

“Based on the information collected to date, our investigators believe this represents an isolated incident stemming from the relationship between Jay Lee and Tim Herrington,” the release states. 

Members of the LGBTQ community in Oxford have been asking police to release more information about the nature of the case ever since Herrington was arrested three weeks ago. Many members said more transparency from police would help them make decisions about how to stay safe. 

Police nodded to this perspective in the release: “More broadly, we want to stress that our agencies are committed to doing all that we can to maintain a safe environment for everyone in our community.”

Members of the LBGTQ community are more likely to be the victim of physical harm from domestic and intimate partners. This is especially true for Black queer people who face compounded discrimination due to homophobia and racism — a routine threat of violence that is personal and systemic, with roots much deeper than any one case.

The release also follows a story Mississippi Today published earlier this week based on accounts from 11 LGBTQ students, faculty and University of Mississippi alumni who said they no longer felt safe in Oxford. At least one community member is afraid to leave their house, said Jaime Harker, the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at UM and the owner of Violet Valley, a feminist bookstore near Oxford. 

Harker said she felt that OPD’s silence contributed to harrowing rumors in the community about the nature and reason for Lee’s killing. 

“I think people are filling the void with what their biggest fears are,” she said. 

Lee, 20, was a well-known member of Oxford’s LBGTQ community who regularly performed at Code Pink, a local drag night. An open, confident person, Lee ran for homecoming king last year to promote a platform of “self love and living your truth.” He repeatedly spoke out about the harassment received for wearing women’s clothing. 

For many people in the community, Lee’s outspokenness made his disappearance all the more terrifying. 

Lindsey Trinh, a senior journalism student at Ole Miss, told Mississippi Today that after weeks of receiving no information about Lee’s killing, she decided she was too fearful and anxious to return to classes in person. She wrote an email to the university provost and her professors explaining how Lee’s case had affected her. 

“At the time and because of the unknown of why this has happened to Jay and the whereabouts of his body, I have decided that I cannot physically come back to Oxford for my last semester this Fall,” Trinh wrote in her email. “I fear for my safety and well-being as an outspoken and proud gay person of color.”

Authorities believe that Lee’s body, still missing, is somewhere in Lafayette or Grenada County. But the circumstantial evidence that police have so far gathered was enough to bring charges, Lafayette County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Kilpatrick argued in court on Tuesday. 

“In 2022 you do not need a body,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s not the 1870s.” 

During the preliminary hearing, Kilpatrick alleged that Herrington’s casual relationship with Lee was unknown to his friends and family. She said that early in the morning on July 8, Herrington “lured” Lee to his apartment, strangled him, and then “staged a cover up” by driving Lee’s car to Molly Barr Trails, a student housing complex. 

Herrington then picked up a box truck belonging to his moving company, Kilpatrick said, and drove it to his parent’s house in Grenada where he retrieved a long-handle shovel and wheelbarrow. 

Kilpatrick argued that Herrington should have been denied bond because his charge – first-degree murder – will likely be elevated to capital murder as police uncover more evidence; some of which is still being processed at a private crime lab. Kilpatrick also argued Herrington was a flight risk, noting that a forensic search of his MacBook showed he had searched for flights from Dallas to Singapore. 

Herrington’s defense attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, disputed that Herrington, who has $1,910 in his bank account, could afford to flee the state. In his closing statement, Horan said the prosecution’s case amounted to “suspicion, conjecture and speculation.” 

Horan called four witnesses who testified, in an effort to obtain bond for Herrington, to his character and connections to the community in Grenada. The witnesses included Herrington’s mother, an elder at his church, one of his teachers, and ??Emily Tindell, the principal of Grenada High School. 

Tindell said that Herrington and his family have “the best of character in Grenada County.”

In her closing statement, Kilpatrick said that Herrington was not the same person that his teachers and family described. 

“They don’t know this other Tim Herrington, his double life,” she said. “They don’t know the Tim Herrington who lives in anonymity. This Tim Herrington, your honor, is the Tim Herrington who killed Jay Lee.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Welfare with Anna Wolfe: Reddit AMA recap

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Reddit AMA recap: Inside Mississippi’s welfare scandal investigation with Anna Wolfe

Anna Wolfe — the investigative reporter behind the most in-depth coverage of the biggest public welfare embezzlement scheme in Missississippi history — answered question’s about the state’s welfare scandal and her reporting on Friday, August 5.

Click to jump to a specific question about Mississippi’s welfare scandal :

Q: It seems at this point this would be best investigated by outside authorities. Do you know if the U.S. ’s office or Justice Department is, or will be investigating?

A: Nancy New’s plea agreement signals federal authorities are investigating, yes. We also know federal authorities have met with other figures in the case, such as a defendant in the civil suit.

Q: Did Phil Bryant know that you had his text messages before he sat down for the interview with you?

A: Yes, he did. It’s the only reason he agreed to the interview. He wanted to “look me in the eye,” his spokesperson said, because he had concerns about “crucifixion by innuendo.”

Q: This is an opinion question of sorts, but assuming Tate’s move was political, why would he have incentive to remove Pigott? It seems like an unforced error that just draws scrutiny on him.

A: Yes, Gov. Reeves’ comments last week illustrated how much control his office has had over the welfare department’s handling of the case. The welfare department is, of course, an executive agency under the control of the governor and run by a Reeves-appointed director. Based on Reeves’ connections to some of the defendants or potential defendants, it does raise questions about how MDHS can be an impartial lead on the case.

Q: Please tell me more about what could possibly happen to former Governor Phil Bryant. Wasn’t he supposedly getting a kick-back from it?

A: Two days after Bryant left office, the founder of Prevacus texted him and said, “Now that you’re unemployed I’d like to give you a company package for all your help …We want and need you on our team!!!”

Over his last year in office, Bryant helped Favre and Prevacus by participating in fundraisers, connecting them with an investor and making inroads with the FDA. The company also received $2 million in stolen welfare funds from Mississippi.
“Sounds good,” Bryant responded. “Where would be the best place to meet. I am now going to get on it hard…”

Bryant says he never accepted the stock, but even an attempt to receive a bribe or kickback can be considered a in statute. Nancy New has also alleged that Phil Bryant directed her to make the $1.1 million payment to Brett Favre.

READ MORE: Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

Q: Just how involved/guilty is Brett Favre in this?

A: Brett Favre was the inspiration behind at least $8.25 million in TANF spending (volleyball, $5M, Prevacus/PreSolMD, $2.15M, himself, $1.1M). And he knew these were grant funds, his texts show.

READ MORE: ‘You stuck your neck out for me’: Brett Favre used fame and favors to pull welfare dollars

He also said, “Don’t know if legal or not but we need to cut him in,” with reference to giving then-Gov. Phil Bryant stock in Prevacus in exchange for his help.

Q: Do you think Auditor Shad held onto the case for too long before alerting the feds?

A: Some experts we talked to noted that was strange.

READ MORE: ‘It doesn’t look good’: At 3-year mark, more questions than answers in Mississippi welfare fraud scandal

Q: Do you feel cases like this embezzlement scandal make your job as an investigative journalist easier or harder? What’s the most enjoyable parts about it all for you?

Please please please keep your foot on the gas; your efforts are invaluable to those of us residents who recognize the abject corruption in this state.

A: I began reporting on TANF before this scandal broke and that was really, really hard. I knew something wasn’t right, but the agency blocked me from getting any information that would allow me to tell the stories I knew were there. Shad White’s arrests in February 2020 definitely set off a chain reaction for me. I focused my reporting on elements of the case that weren’t public (or at least public yet), like breaking stories about the USM volleyball stadium, Marcus Dupree’s horse ranch, and of course, Phil Bryant’s text messages with Brett Favre. Making my own discoveries and making connections I didn’t pick up on before is definitely one of the [most fun] parts of my job.

Q: Geoff Pender writes.., “(Tate Reeves) said criminal investigations are ongoing by the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Health and Human Services fraud investigators and others.”

I hate to admit it, but doesn’t Reeves have a point in using this as the defense for firing Pigott?

Why would Pigott be investigating something the Feds aren’t? WHY would the feds not be interested in the things Pigott’s interested in?

A: I don’t think anyone is arguing that the feds aren’t investigating USM. It wasn’t Pigott’s responsibility to know what the feds considered a crime or not. He was bringing a separate civil suit, which attempts to recoup the money. Some targets in the civil suit (such as Prevacus, John Davis, etc.) are still wrapped up in criminal proceedings and investigations, so it’s not as though the state is avoiding any of those folks in its current civil suit.

The $5 million the USM athletic foundation received would be an obvious target for any civil litigator because 1) it’s the biggest ticket item in the entire scheme, 2) it’s easy to prove laws were broken—a defendant has already pleaded guilty to such in state court and 3) the athletic foundation might actually have the money to pay it back, unlike many other defendants.

Q: Do you have any hope this reporting will lead to any positive changes? I only ask because I am a disenfranchised Mississippian who sees the same scenario play out time and again with minimal repercussions on the “politicians” that started the mess to begin.

A: I totally understand this sentiment and I ask myself this question a lot. Ideally, we’d see some big consequence or policy change that we could point to, to know we’re making an impact, but that’s not usually the reality. After the Backchannel published, I got a call from someone pretty high up in government that told me because of the reporting, “I feel emboldened more than ever to just tell the truth and know that that’s the right thing to do.” That stuck with me. Too many of the ills of this state are the result of secret-keeping. I can’t think of many better ways for us to have a positive impact than penetrating the culture of silence that has kept Mississippians in the dark.

Q: The welfare money is federal money. The FBI, Department of Justice and probably the IRS and US Postal Inspector should be swooping in and investigating everyone and every organization involved. Any word on that aspect?

A: You’re right. Nancy New’s plea deal struck in April signals that state and federal authorities are still investigating. And they got a pretty sweet deal to cooperate, which would lead one to believe they’re pursuing those involved at the top.

Q: Is there any chance anyone other than Nancy New and her group [is] being punished for this? When I say punished I mean actual punishment, not a slap on the wrist type fine for less than what was stolen.

A: Yes, the six people arrested in 2020 are certainly facing consequences, even if they haven’t yet been sentenced to prison time. Sentencing won’t happen until the investigation is concluded and it’s hard to predict how much time, if any, each defendant will get. I’ve heard a lot of doubt about the civil suit being fruitful: Many of the defendants likely do not have the funds to pay whatever damages they may be hit with. If it’s determined they broke the law, wage garnishment is an option, but some of them aren’t even working right now. So what I think you’re asking is, will anyone else be arrested? The feds, as is typical, have been super quiet so I can’t answer that.

Q: Does the Biden justice department actually have the appetite to take this on? We hear a lot about the FBI and the federal part of this, but previous JDs were hesitant to get involved in obvious cases.

A: That’s a good question. Biden hasn’t appointed a U.S. Attorney in Jackson, which has inevitably had an impact on the progress of the case. They have no political reason not to pursue this case to the furthest extent. But it’s also not exactly a cut-and-dried investigation. It’s a mammoth.

Q: Are you aware of any individuals who were knowingly involved but whose names have never been made public?

A: Nancy New’s response to the civil suit was fairly comprehensive.

READ MORE: Gov. Phil Bryant directed $1.1 million welfare payment to Brett Favre, defendant says

Q: Where did you get the text messages??

A: Someday I’ll tell the story…

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi now leads the world in mass incarceration

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Mississippi now leads the world in mass incarceration

Mississippi is now the world’s leader in putting people behind bars — more inmates per capita than any state or nation, including China, Russia and Iran, according to the World Population Review. 

“Is there a political price to be paid for foolishly sticking with a failed system that’s made us the world capital of mass incarceration?” asked Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “What’s it going to take for Mississippians to realize that the mass incarceration we have carried out for decades has made us less safe, rather than safer?” 

Across the U.S., the number of those in prison in the U.S. is 16% lower today than before the pandemic, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, but Mississippi’s rate is skyrocketing, rising more than 1,500 in less than six months. That population now exceeds 18,000 — the highest rate since April 2020

“We have perfected throwing people away for long periods of time,” Johnson said, “and yet after decades and decades of this approach, Mississippians are more fearful about violent than any time I remember.” 

In September 2013, Mississippi had as many as 22,490 inmates behind bars. In the years since, reforms and an aggressive Parole Board, headed by a veteran law enforcement officer, reduced the number of inmates to the lowest level in two decades. On Feb. 7, that population fell to 16,499, according to MDOC. 

But with Gov. Tate Reeves’ new board chairman, a former Chevron executive he put in charge in January, that trend has reversed itself. 

On Aug. 1, the prison population hit a high of 18,080

If this current trend continues, Mississippi would top 19,000 inmates before the end of the year and would surpass 22,000 inmates before the end of 2023. 

That additional prison population would cost taxpayers more than $100 million a year, based on the $53.72 per-day cost computed by the state’s legislative watchdog. 

“We’re stuck in this futile cycle of throwing more money at prisons,” Johnson said. “Even with the Department of Justice breathing down our necks, we can’t handle the people we have.” 

The Justice Department began investigating the in Parchman in 2020 after MCIR and ProPublica reported on the increases in grisly violence, gang control and subhuman living conditions. In April, the department reported that the prison’s conditions violate the Constitution. 

The department is investigating other prisons as well. 

Promises, Promises in Prison Reform 

When Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, signed House Bill 585 into law in 2014, the measure drew widespread praise from conservatives and liberals alike because it promised to reduce the prison population, save millions —  $266  million, to be exact — and reinvest some of the money into programs for offenders

Instead, all of those savings went back into the state’s coffers, helping to pay for huge phased-in corporate tax cuts enacted in 2016, because the state was struggling to meet revenue estimates. 

Last year, Reeves signed legislation aimed at expanding parole eligibility to 3,000 more inmates, believing it could be a “net positive for Mississippi.” He later bragged about the significant reduction in inmates at Parchman. 

“I believe in second chances,” he said in an April 22, 2022, tweet. “I trust my Parole Board appointees to make wise decisions.” 

But since his appointment of a new chairman in 2022, the numbers of paroles have declined. 

When Steven Pickett chaired the board between 2013 and 2021, he said about six of every 10 inmates who appeared before the Parole Board earned their release. The board typically saw about 5,000 inmates a year. 

Now the board is rejecting far more requests. So far this year, about three-fourths of inmates who have appeared before the board have been rejected for parole. 

At the same time Mississippi is filling up its prisons, the state is lagging in programs that would help ensure that inmates don’t return. 

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections can’t have a rodeo or enough GED classes, because we don’t have the staffing,” Johnson said. “We probably can’t support more than about 12,000 incarcerated, but we’ve got 18,000.” 

Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain convinced state lawmakers to raise salaries of correctional officers in the 2022 legislative session. 

While hiring officers has proved a struggle, he said Tuesday, “We’re gaining ground. We’re going to show the Justice Department we’re moving along.” 

By fall, he hopes to have 80 schools for inmates to gain certification in engine repair, plumbing, welding, carpentry and other fields. 

By doing this, “we’ll reduce recidivism, and we’ll reduce violence,” he said. “About half of the 4,400 inmates we release each year will have a skill or trade.” 

He ran a similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and saw the recidivism rate drop to less than 10%. 

He called Mississippi’s program “way more intense. We’re meeting a need.” 

Rather than hiring teachers on the outside, he’s using inmates certified in these fields to teach, he said. 

He praised the Parole Board. “We don’t want gangsters getting out,” he said. 

With this new training program for inmates, “we’re going to turn the curve,” he said. “We already have people from Alabama coming to see how we do things.” 

Alternatives to Prison Part of the Solution 

Cain has also started an alcohol and drug program at the once-shuttered Walnut Grove Correctional Facility that houses 32 inmates in a 90-day addiction program. 

Pickett said such programs play an important role in treatment for Mississippi inmates, three-fourths of whom are battling alcohol or drug problems or both. 

For example, he said, if a parolee is caught with meth and has failed to report to his parole officer for two months, what should the Parole Board do? 

Send him back to prison? Or to treatment? 

Locking him up in prison for a year won’t cure his addiction, Pickett said. “All we are doing is putting him in a place that’s dangerous. Meth is just as prolific in prison as it is on the streets. It’s very, very sad.” 

The other option would be the Technical Violation Center. 

State Public Defender Andre de Gruy said the state needs to do a better job of utilizing this center. 

“Now that we’re number one in mass incarceration,” Johnson said, “we ought to stop and take a collective timeout and have a long conversation about whether we’re satisfied and whether we’ve had a good return on the billions we’ve invested. 

“Are we locking up more people because there’s something about Mississippians that make them morally deficient or more likely to commit crime? Or is there something more to this story?” 

Email Jerry.Mitchell@MississippiCIR.org. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. 

This report was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Mississippi Today. We’re also making it available to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting through a Mississippi Poverty Reporting Collective funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and managed by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. 

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for our newsletter. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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