Where do Ezell, Palazzo stand on the issues?


Videos: Where do Ezell, Palazzo stand on the issues?

Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo faces challenger Sheriff Mike Ezell in Tuesday’s runoff for the GOP primary for the 4th District House seat, serving South Mississippi.

Palazzo, facing a crowded field of Republican challengers in the midterm primary, received about 32% of the vote; Ezell about 25%, forcing a runoff.

The two candidates spoke with Mississippi Today ahead of the runoff and a scheduled Friday debate on Coast television station WLOX.

Here is some background on the candidates, what they believe the top issues are and what differentiates them from one another.

The candidates

Ezell, who grew up in , is a 42-year veteran law enforcement officer in South Mississippi.

He started his career with the Pascagoula Department, working his way from jailer to chief of detectives, then served as chief of police for the city of . He was elected sheriff of Jackson County, a post he has held since 2014.

Ezell has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

Mississippi Today Senior Politics Reporter Geoff Pender interviews Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Palazzo, a Coast native, is a certified public accountant who ran his own business before taking his current office. He is a former state legislator, and has held the 4th District U.S. House seat since 2011.

Palazzo is a Marine Corps veteran and serves in the Mississippi National Guard.

Mississippi Today Senior Politics Reporter Geoff Pender interviews U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Voters’ issues

Both candidates said inflation — particularly soaring gasoline prices — is the top issue they hear from 4th District residents as they campaign.

“The cost of energy is off the charts,” Palazzo said. “It was to be expected — President Biden when he was on his campaign said we would end our reliance on fossil fuels. Well, guess what? Now we have $5 a gallon gas. He cancelled Keystone pipeline on day one, killing hundreds of thousands of jobs, and many of those were in Mississippi, where we have pipe manufacturers.”

Ezell said he hears from constituents: “Gas prices, grocery prices, not having groceries in some stores. I’ve talked with some of our trucker friends and they said the fuel prices are killing us, making it hard to get our goods to the stores. People are very upset about this.”

Palazzo said illegal immigration, with attendant human trafficking and drug smuggling is another major issue for South Mississippi.

Ezell said high taxes and overregulation are also major issues.

Policies and proposals

Both candidates said they would push for deregulation, particularly on the energy sector.

Ezell said he would work to get fertilizer and other costs down for Mississippi farmers “so they can make a profit.”

“There are so many regulations out there right now,” Ezell said. “… We need to work with like-minded conservative people in Congress to get some policies in place to make life better for people, like getting grocery prices down … We need to see about cutting the gas tax, for the truckers who get the goods to the stores … We’ve just got to remove some of these regulations so that we can help people earn a living.”

Palazzo said: “As someone who’s worked offshore, I know the importance of American energy — drill here, drill now. We need to unleash American energy resources and get America back to being energy independent, and I think we can do that.”

Palazzo said he would also push to re-start plans to build a U.S. southern border wall and increase military spending, and protect tax cuts and jobs legislation passed in 2017.

Candidates list accomplishments

Palazzo said his accomplishments as a congressman include, “I was able to secure $1.4 billion for the border as the homeland security negotiator on the Appropriations Committee in 2019, and we were building the wall two years ago and securing America.”

“With the ships we build at Ingalls (shipyard) we’ve been able to secure $26 billion for 26 different ships in 10 years, and that is so vital to our national security, but also to our quality of life here, because of the dependence we have on those jobs created locally,” Palazzo said. He said he has also worked to keep federal flood insurance affordable for homeowners on the Gulf Coast and worked to support the state’s military installations, including for upgrades at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg to expand training.

“The number one driver of the in South Mississippi is federal spending,” Palazzo said. “We have to admit that to ourselves, but it’s good federal spending — national security, NASA programs, NOAA to help predict storms — and every bit of that goes through my committee where I sit on Appropriations.”

Ezell said: “Some of my greatest accomplishments are being a husband and a father and a grandfather … I started working in the jail, and worked my way all the way up to chief of detectives at Pascagoula. During that time, I was a competitive shooter, and got to travel all around the southeastern part of the country to compete and shoot and learned a lot of techniques from other officers. I also graduated from the FBI’s national academy, where I excelled in all fields of training and received an award for physical fitness and attention to duty. I am also proud of that. During my time at the Pascagoula Police Department, I went to night school at USM and got a degree in criminal justice. That was a big thing for me. I was only the third person in my family to get a college degree.”

Ezell said that as sheriff, Jackson County was the first in the state to open its own lab, to avoid backlog problems faced by the state lab and “to save taxpayers money and help all the surrounding agencies in our county have a crime lab.” Ezell said under his tenure his agency has also recently opened its own shooting range and training facility.

“When I first took over as sheriff, the former sheriff had been indicted and removed, and all the police chiefs came to me and said, ‘Mike, help us rehabilitate and get this (narcotics) task force back together,’ which we have done and now have a highly respected organization,” Ezell said. “We have our own budget, and don’t have to depend on seizures or anything like that for funding.”

What differentiates them?

Ezell said one thing that differentiates him from Palazzo is, “I will be available. You won’t have to look for me.”

Palazzo has for years faced criticism for not being very visible or accessible in his district.

“What I’ve heard so many times around this district is we don’t know where (Palazzo) is at,” Ezell said. “Where is our representative? We don’t know where he’s at, we can’t talk with him, he won’t call us back. I will be available. I will be in the district and I will return your phone calls … General rule 101 with the sheriff’s office is if you call, somebody better call you back and if not, I’m going to be asking you why did you not call that person back. That’s just a common courtesy, be it a sheriff or police officer or state representative or congressman.”

Palazzo said his experience and seniority in Congress, and relationships he’s built over years are needed for the 4th District.

“Most importantly, I have a proven, conservative record,” Palazzo said. “My opponent has no record where he has ever cast a vote on issues that matter most for South Mississippians, whether it’s pro-life, whether it’s pro gun, pro military or pro business. For 12 years I’ve been serving South Mississippi and I have a proven record of delivering for them on all those issues.

“… Seniority is important in the military and it’s important in Congress,” Palazzo said. “That’s how you get on the key committees and get key assignments.”

He said that should Republicans retake the House this midterm, he would be in line to be the chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee of Appropriations where he can push for building a border wall.

Recently, all other Republican challengers in the first primary vote threw their support behind Ezell. U.S. House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana in a trip to South Mississippi endorsed Palazzo.

The two candidates have agreed to a televised debate, scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday on WLOX-TV on the Coast.

“I’ve been to multiple debates, Steven Palazzo has not been to any of them,” Ezell said of this election cycle.

Palazzo said: “I think it’s important for voters in South Mississippi to see the contrast.”

The winner of the June 28 GOP runoff will face Democratic former longtime Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Libertarian Alden Patrick Johnson in the Nov. 8 general election.

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

Welfare scandal: New asked for help before arrests


‘Whipping child’: Nancy New asked highest officials for help before arrests in welfare scandal

In the days and weeks leading up to their arrests in early 2020, Nancy New and her son Zach New sought help from Mississippi’s highest officials to stop what they described as their persecution.

Private text messages obtained by Mississippi Today show the News reacting with a combination of hubris, a sense of betrayal and even confusion over their plight. 

The News had been in charge of spending tens of millions of federal welfare dollars in Mississippi, but the state didn’t hire their nonprofit to provide tangible resources to the poor. Instead, it was to run a private referral center, while the state would use the nonprofit as its piggy bank for projects it couldn’t find funding for elsewhere. 

In many cases, these programs occurred out in the open. The welfare agency’s partnership with a Christian ministry run by WWE wrestlers was written into plans shared with the federal government. A $5 million lease agreement that paid for construction of a new volleyball stadium under the guise that people in poverty would attend courses at the facility was included in board meeting minutes and approved by the Institutes of Higher Learning and the attorney general’s office. And Nancy New’s financing of a private pharmaceutical firm was explained in text messages that retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre sent to the state’s highest official, then-Gov. Phil Bryant.

That could help explain why the News seemed surprised to find themselves the subject of a probe that officials eventually called the largest public embezzlement bust in state history. In Nancy New’s many roles, she was often carrying out the vision of Gov. Bryant and his wife, Deborah Bryant. 

In her panic to shut down the investigation, Nancy New secured a meeting with then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, according to the text messages and a source with knowledge of the meeting. She seemed to hope that the federal prosecutor could provide her information about the probe. 

“It has passed [sic] time to turn the other cheek,” Nancy New wrote to her two sons the evening of Jan. 25, 2020. “First, though, we have [to] make it through this and get this stopped, get cleared of their harassment, etc. then we will go after them all. It will obviously take a lot of money and time but we may need to go on and file once we find out what Mike Hurst says.”

These never-before-published text messages shed light on the incredulous attitudes of the defendants and their last attempts to save themselves before the scandal broke. After Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series published in April, the News pleaded guilty to several counts including bribery, fraud, wire fraud and racketeering under a favorable plea deal that allows them to avoid any time in state prison as long as they cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Still, the pleas were a massive fall for a family that had been so politically connected. 

Nancy New was such a close friend to Deborah Bryant that on the same day she plotted with her sons to “go after” her detractors, she lent some of her clothes to the First Lady to try on. Nancy New arranged delivery of the items to the house of the governor’s daughter, Katie Bryant Snell, in text messages with her son Zach New days before their arrests. In explaining the messages, Bryant’s public relations consultant told Mississippi Today that Deborah Bryant had told Nancy New she was getting ready for a trip and had nothing to wear. Close enough to share clothes, it’s unclear what the Bryant family may have discussed with the News about the ongoing investigation. Zach New and Bryant’s son-in-law Stephen Snell were also included in a friendly group message where the men mostly discussed sports.

At that time, the News were aware they were being investigated. They knew their nonprofit’s finances were in disarray. But they didn’t know they were about to be accused of embezzling more than $4 million in federal welfare dollars to use for their private school company and to make investments in Favre’s pharmaceutical venture called Prevacus.

Then-U.S. Attorney Hurst didn’t know it either, because even though the scandal involved federal funds and eventual charges of racketeering – which usually signals the kind of organized that the FBI investigates – the Office of the State Auditor made the initial arrests before involving the federal authorities. The auditor’s office carried out the preceding eight-month investigation on its own and turned to a local district attorney to indict.

The auditor who initially investigated the welfare case, Shad White, is a Bryant appointee and former campaign manager with higher political aspirations.

While the auditor was closing in on the News, Bryant was preparing to accept shares in Prevacus, according to text messages Mississippi Today first reported, the company to which Nancy New had illegally funneled welfare funds.

Hours after leaving office in mid-January 2020, Bryant promised to “get on it hard” in making connections for Prevacus. Within weeks, Bryant officially joined the consulting firm his daughter and former chief of staff Joey Songy recently formed.

Right up until the arrests, Bryant was consulting Prevacus and helping it secure an important investor who was one of the new firm’s clients.

The texts also show Favre had told Bryant that Prevacus was working with welfare officials and receiving funds from Mississippi. Bryant backed out of the deal after the New arrests.  

Prosecutors say the investigation is ongoing, but three years after it began, they have yet to publicly scrutinize the former governor’s deal with Prevacus. 

Though dozens of people received money they shouldn’t have, and dozens more played some role in funneling the money away from the poor, the auditor’s office and District Attorney’s Office selected six people to charge criminally. Neither state nor federal authorities have arrested anyone else related to the scheme.

“Doug, Families First and we, are truly being railroaded,” Nancy New sent in a message in late January to Doug Davis, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s chief of staff.

In 2016, Mississippi Department of Human Services selected Nancy New’s nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, and another nonprofit called Family Resource Center of North Mississippi to head up the rapid expansion of an anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi. With that came a cash flow of tens of millions of dollars in grant funds that they would use to carry out official state plans under then-welfare director John Davis, appointed by Phil Bryant. 

This included funding religious initiatives and rallies featuring famous athletes who were earning millions of dollars from the welfare department. Despite being included in official state plans shared with the federal government, these programs are now considered central to the biggest welfare spending scandal in state history. The money came from a ‘90s-era federal welfare program with lax oversight and a reputation for being a slush fund. Soon, the spending spun out of control.

In mid-2019, John Davis’ deputy Jacob Black and other employees gathered information about how John Davis was paying retired WWE wrestler Brett DiBiase for work he didn’t conduct and possibly double dipping the welfare department for a program run by Teddy DiBiase Jr. 

Black himself was instrumental in creating many of the questionable grants and the auditor recently served him a civil demand to repay the state $3 million. But Black was also the original source of the tip that Shad White has credited with toppling the scheme. Black took the tip to Bryant, who took the information to Shad White, according to MDHS officials, Bryant staffers and other sources. 

Shad White has maintained that Bryant was the whistleblower of the scandal, crediting the former governor for toppling the scheme.

Within a few months, the auditor’s examination of John Davis’ welfare spending led them to the New nonprofit. The auditor raided Mississippi Community Education Center’s offices in October 2019 and the Mississippi Department of Human Services restricted funding to the nonprofit, jeopardizing vendors who were relying on their reimbursement.

“Our lives and office have been turned upside down for over 3 months now and we deserve answers,” Nancy New’s other son, Jess New, local attorney and director of the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, said in a text.

While he was never included in criminal charges, Jess New had his hand in business operations at the nonprofit and other MDHS offshoots John Davis was attempting to create, according to a recently filed lawsuit. The civil , filed by MDHS, seeks $2.6 million in damages from Jess New, which is included as part of the $19.4 million the suit is asking from his mother. 

In early January 2020, the owner of Prevacus received a subpoena from the auditor’s office for documents related to the stock he offered the News in exchange for their grant funding, according to text messages and documents Mississippi Today obtained. On Jan. 15, 2020, Gov. Tate Reeves took office. 

In the next few weeks, the News scrambled to get information about the investigation and why they weren’t receiving payment from MDHS. They thought Phil Bryant and his newly appointed welfare director, Christopher Freeze, made the call to freeze their nonprofit’s funding before he left office. 

“PB and CF made the decision to freeze the money. Definitely looks like the organization and lord knows who else will be charged for something… idea what,” Jess New wrote on Jan. 25, 2020.

“Geez all the hard work just to be thrown under the bus,” Zach New responded.

Jess New told his brother that Christie Webb, the operator of the Family Resource Center, the other nonprofit that was spending welfare money wildly, had reached out to ask Congressman Trent Kelly to release their funding from MDHS.

Kelly’s representative Susan Parker told Mississippi Today in a statement that his office has “no knowledge of what happened between the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Family Resource Center beyond published reports.”

“After discovering there was an ongoing investigation into the Family Resource center, our office refrained from getting involved in this issue,” she wrote.

The north Mississippi nonprofit has since lost its MDHS funding altogether.

The News had also reached out to Brad White, who was heading up Reeves’ transition as his chief of staff. Zach asked his brother, “BW against us?”

“No he’s just in the middle,” Jess New responded. “They know it’s a f’ed up situation and PB’s the issue.”

Brad White told Mississippi Today that, to the best of his recollection, two groups reached out to the Reeves transition team, including people on behalf of judges who were using some of the funds to help children in the court system. The two nonprofits who ran Families First, Nancy New and Webb’s nonprofits, had been at odds with each other in the last year. The two nonprofits were also responsible for the programmatic side of a judicial initiative called Family First, which aimed to revamp the state’s foster care system by providing more preventative services. The initiative, headed up by Deborah Bryant, crumbled during the investigation.

“I know enough about things from my time at the auditor’s office that you don’t get involved in anything remotely involved with an investigation,” Brad White said. “I think it was like, ‘I wish you the best, and there’s nothing I can do.’”

Brad White said both the New contingent and the judges wanted help in unfreezing their funds, but that he told them the transition team could not help with that and that the new administration would follow any recommendations or guidance from the state auditor’s office on the case.

The News were left speculating what exactly they were in trouble for, who was against them and why their funding was cut off.

“Because we’re being investigated is why. We need someone to investigate the investigators and this BS investigation,” Jess New texted his mother on Jan. 26, 2020. “It’s a witch hunt and blatant harassment.”

In the following days, Nancy New took her associate David Kelly, a consultant for Oxford-based low-income real estate developer Chartre Consulting, to meet with Hurst. 

New’s organization had promised to provide classes and resource referrals to the residents of Chartre’s properties. The partnership allowed New’s nonprofit to increase the headcount of people served through Families First, but the program struggled to persuade residents to truly participate, Chartre Consulting owner Clarence Chapman told Mississippi Today. The services amounted to Families First hosting events where they gave away free hot dogs.

“It didn’t penetrate as much as we would have liked, but that’s just the nature of our residents and that income level. But they (Nancy New’s nonprofit) worked hard to get participation and I wish they’d still have this underway where it could benefit our residents,” Chapman said.

He sees the News as victims of Bryant and Davis’ vague plan to turn the state’s welfare system into a resource referral network instead of providing direct aid.

“It’s a shame the way the regulations are written to let the governor use the money like that and then poor Nancy, who was a very respectable person, has been abused by the system,” he continued. “She got way over her head and didn’t realize what she was dealing with and is the whipping child for a bunch of different reasons here and it’s destroyed her and her finances. And it’s sad, because she’s a good person … She appears to be used as a conduit to spread money and do what others wanted done with it who had the authority to do that.”

Someone with knowledge of the meeting said that Hurst, two assistant U.S. attorneys and an FBI agent met with Nancy New and David Kelly, and New’s attorney attended by phone. David Kelly initially agreed to an interview with Mississippi Today and then stopped responding to calls and messages.

If Nancy New chose to meet with Hurst in an attempt to avoid prosecution, it didn’t work. Instead, it tipped off federal authorities to White’s investigation and caused them to reach out to the auditor for more information. 

Then, Jess New got some new information.

“Don’t think PB suspended our funds….I’ll explain later,” he texted on Feb. 3, 2020, the day before a Hinds County grand jury handed down the indictments, referring to Phil Bryant. “Still may not hurt to reach out to him for any help.”

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

Jackson leaders implement programs to reduce crime as homicides mount

45 views – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-06-17 07:46:57

Mariyah Lacey, 5, became Jackson’s 65th homicide victim so far this year when she was shot to while inside a car at a gas station in Jackson on Sunday afternoon. 

“Lacey was killed when a man arguing with her mother shot into her mother’s vehicle,” the Associated Press reports. “ said Robert Dewayne Jackson, 25, was captured Monday and is charged with murder and aggravated…

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Woman on death row wins appeal to challenge case


Mississippi woman on death row wins appeal to challenge her case in state court

The only woman serving on Mississippi’s row can challenge her sentence and conviction in state court, a federal judge has ruled. 

Lisa Jo Chamberlin was convicted of two counts of capital murder in 2006 and is at housed at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. 

But she is not the only incarcerated person on death row appealing her case. 

Of the 36 people sentenced to death, all are in various stages of having their cases reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court or in federal court, said Krissy Nobile, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction, a state agency. 

Post-conviction litigation begins after a person is convicted and sentenced and the Mississippi Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court denies a defendant’s direct appeal. Post-conviction cases challenge aspects of a criminal trial, conviction judgment or a sentence. 

“Post-conviction isn’t just a one stop shot and you get one chance,” said Nobile, whose office has requested to represent Chamberlin and represents all other death row incarcerated people  

Examples of post-conviction claims can include ineffective counsel, a change in law, new evidence that can excuse fault or guilt, the application of mitigation that may have convinced a jury to vote for a sentence less than death or constitutional violations. 

Relief for a death row inmate can come in the form of a new trial and resentencing for a lesser sentence, like life in prison without the possibility of parole, Nobile said. 

On June 1, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi issued a stay in Chamberlin’s case, allowing her to return to state court to litigate unexhausted claims in her case. 

He cited a 2013 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling recognizing a state right to effective-post conviction legal representation in death penalty cases, even after an initial post-conviction petition was denied. 

“Here, Chamberlin has a valid excuse for not pursuing this claim earlier: it did not exist until after her habeas case had been filed,” Reeves wrote. “The claim is not clearly meritless.” 

In 2006, Chamberlin was found guilty of murder with her then-boyfriend Roger Gillett for killing two people they lived with in Hattiesburg. 

The victims, Linda Heintzelman and her boyfriend Vernon Hulett, were put into a freezer and taken to Kansas, where Chamberlin and Gillett were arrested.

Chamberlin appealed her conviction and sentence, but in 2008 the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the Forrest County Circuit Court’s decision and denied her petition for post-conviction relief, according to court records. 

In 2011, Chamberlin asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to hear her case and in 2015 Reeves ordered a new trial. Attorneys argued there was a constitutional issue in her case known as a Batson violation, which is the improper dismissal of potential members of a jury based on race, according to court records. 

A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Reeves’ ruling, but in 2018 the full court reversed its decision, court records state. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Chamberlin’s case in 2019, putting it back in the hands of the federal district court in Mississippi. 

Earlier this year, Chamberlin’s attorney filed an intent to return the case to state court.

In state court, Chamberlin will be represented by the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel. 

Nobile and several of her colleagues sent a request to the Mississippi Supreme Court to represent Chamberlin. Once appointed, the team will begin to review Chamberlin’s case files, investigate and find evidence for claims that haven’t been raised in her case. 

The office did not represent Chamberlin in her initial post-conviction case because it represented her co-defendant Gillett. Nobile said the office does not represent co-defendants to avoid conflict of interest. 

Mississippi is one of 27 death penalty states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit providing analysis and information about capital punishment.  

Here, capital murder can result in a death sentence. The decision to seek the death penalty is made by a district attorney and the sentence must be unanimously decided by a jury. 

A killing is considered capital murder under several instances, including a murder committed during another such as a rape, arson or robbery; the death of a child as a result of battery or abuse and the murder of a firefighter or “peace officer” such as a officer, sheriff or other law enforcement officer. 

State law also lists treason and aircraft piracy as charges that carry the death penalty. 

Previously, homicide/murder was a charge that carried the death penalty. Several of the incarcerated people on death row whose crimes were committed before 1998 have this charge. 

Over the years, there have been changes to death penalty law in the state, including not executing juveniles, those found to be mentally incompetent and people who committed non-murder crimes. 

The average age of people currently on death row is 48.8, according to a review of Mississippi Department of Corrections data. Richard Jordan, who is 76, is the oldest and Terry Pitchford, 36, is the youngest on death row. 

Inmates have been on death row for an average of 20.1 years, according to MDOC data. Jordan has been there longest for 45 years and Alberto Garcia is the newest on death row and has been there for just under two years. 

About 58% of death row inmates are Black and about 36% are white, according to MDOC data. The remaining percent are Hispanic or Asian – about 3% for each racial group. 

Some have severe mental illness, Nobile said. Many of them had difficult life circumstances and were poor at the time their crimes were committed, she said. 

Because the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel is tasked by law to represent people serving on death row until their death, Nobile said she and her staff have built years-long relationships with them through visits to Parchman. 

“Justice has to be at the forefront,” Nobile said about the office’s work. “We’re looking back on how a case turned out and if there is new evidence that could be looked at in the future.” 

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

Anti-gun violence rallies planned for Saturday


Anti-gun violence rallies planned in Mississippi Saturday

Three marches Saturday in Mississippi will join a national call for lawmakers to address gun violence and pass gun control measures. 

Demonstrations are scheduled in Jackson at the Mississippi State Capitol, Oxford City Hall and Fairpark in downtown Tupelo, each from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. They will happen alongside marches in Washington D.C. and across the country for March For Our Lives.

March For Our Lives formed in 2018 as a student-led organization after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. where 17 students and staff died. 

That year, students from the school and around the country went to Washington to demonstrate and call for gun control measures. 

The Saturday marches were scheduled in response to the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas where 17 students and teachers died, according to March For Our Lives.

Since the group’s 2018 demonstration, there have been countless other gun violence incidents and a lack of gun control to prevent shootings, according to the organization. 

So far this year, there have been 251 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which counts gun violence and incidents daily and verifies them. Five of  this year’s mass shootings occurred in Mississippi.

A mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot or killed during a single incident at the same time and location, not including the shooter.  

In 2022, there have been 450 school shootings in the county, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Five have happened in Mississippi this year. 

People who would like to participate are asked to register on the pages for Jackson, Oxford and Tupelo. Information about other marches can be found here

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

Mississippi’s history of lax abortion laws before Roe v. Wade


The state fighting to dismantle abortion rights has a long history of permissive abortion laws

When Mississippi asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, it argued that a long tradition of state restrictions on abortion in the U.S. “defeats any claim of a deeply rooted right” to an abortion. 

Yet for all but 21 of its 156 years as a state prior to Roe, Mississippi law technically permitted abortion for any reason until about 16 weeks of pregnancy.

Mississippi Today could find no published scholarship on the history of abortion law in Mississippi specifically, and national histories on the topic generally make little reference to the state. 

This story is based on interviews with historians of abortion law and politics, stories published in Mississippi newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries, books and articles about abortion law in the U.S., vital records held in the state archives, and a review of Mississippi laws.  

Decades after almost every state had banned the procedure at any stage of pregnancy, Mississippi’s law continued to follow the practice in place at the country’s founding: Abortion was a only if the fetus was “quick,” or had been felt to move, typically around four months of pregnancy. Mississippi did not update that law until 1952, though people were still prosecuted for abortions prior to that, usually in cases where the woman had died.

The role of abortion in the U.S. decades ago sits at the center of arguments about its future. In his leaked draft opinion, Justice Samuel Alito sided with the state’s reading of history when he wrote: “An unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

But if the Court’s final ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Organization is similar to Alito’s draft, Mississippi’s legal restrictions on abortion today will become tighter than they have been at almost any point in its history. The state’s trigger law will ban abortion in all cases except those involving rape and a threat to the mother’s life.  A separate law passed in 2019 banning abortions after six weeks contains no exception for rape.

The evolution of state law after Roe in 1973 mirrors the national rise of the pro-life movement as a powerful force in Republican politics. A movement that was once predominantly Catholic and Northern became largely evangelical and Southern. 

A movement that was once on the defensive in Southern state legislatures, including Mississippi’s, began winning one victory after another across the South and Midwest. 

Mississippi, for decades an outlier in permitting many abortions, became in 2021 the state that asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. 

“If there’s a person in Mississippi who thinks that by virtue of these laws going into force after Dobbs, that we’re returning Mississippi to the good old days … they’re wrong,” said Aaron Tang, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis who has researched the history of state abortion laws. “The substantial history of Mississippi throughout its existence as a state has been basically what is willing to do: a procedure up to 16 weeks.”

At the time of the founding of the United States, abortion was legal in every state until the “quickening,” following the English common law tradition. Because there was no medical way to prove a pregnancy until the fetus had moved, a woman could claim she needed to “restore” or unblock her menstrual cycle, and no one else could insist she was actually pregnant. 

“The popular ethic regarding abortion and common law were grounded in the female experience of their own bodies,” the historian Leslie J. Reagan wrote in her book “When Abortion Was A Crime.”

Mississippi passed its first law on abortion in 1839: “The wilful killing of an unborn quick child, by any injury to the mother of such child, which would be murder if it resulted in the of the mother, shall be deemed manslaughter in the first degree.”

The law was part of an early wave of such legislation across the country from roughly 1820 to 1840. The historian James C. Mohr wrote that such laws were usually passed as a part of larger revisions to the state criminal codes; abortion itself was not a public issue.

Mid-19th century newspapers treated abortion as a practice that did not involve Mississippians – or, at least, white Mississippians. After the Civil War, as white Mississippians resisted Reconstruction and Black political empowerment, state newspapers sometimes presented abortion as a symbol of Northern immorality. 

In 1867, the body of an infant was found near the river Under the Hill in Natchez, partially buried in the sand, wrapped in an apron and tied to two bricks. 

“We sincerely hope that the abortion and child murdering mania which rages in the New England States and in New York to such a fearful extent has not reached us,” the Natchez Democrat opined. 

Racism was also part of discussions of abortion in Mississippi, as it was around the country. 

“Notwithstanding the North makes pretensions to all the purity of the land, and essays to look down upon the South in her barbaric practices, yet infanticide the most inexcusable and disgusting, as well as most horrible of all crimes, is of common occurrence there, while with us it is almost unknown, and when known is confined almost exclusively to the Negroes,” wrote a columnist for the Vicksburg Post in 1870. 

By 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, Mississippi was one of only three states with a law against abortion that nonetheless explicitly permitted it prior to quickening. (The others were Arkansas and Minnesota.) Six states had no laws on abortion. 

In the draft opinion leaked in early May, Alito claims that the remaining 28 states prohibited abortion at all stages, and thus that the Fourteenth Amendment – in which the court has located a right to privacy – cannot be understood to protect a right to an abortion. 

Other historians disagree with that claim. A brief filed in Dobbs by the American Historical Association reported that pre-quickening abortions were legal in 11 states and less heavily punished in seven more by 1868. Tang claims that the true number of states that departed from the common law tradition to prohibit abortion at all stages of pregnancy by the time of the Fourteenth Amendment was actually 16.  

And before the 20th century, there was no way to prove a pregnancy before the quickening, so abortion laws pertaining to a “pregnant woman” in practice were not always substantially different from laws that applied only to post-quickening abortions.

A Mississippi Supreme Court decision in 1898 rejected the idea that fetuses were people, citing the common law. 

A Pontotoc woman named Emma Prude was indicted for ending her own pregnancy under a state law prohibiting giving medicine to a woman pregnant with a “quick child” to end the pregnancy. The Court not only determined that the statute didn’t apply to a woman who ended her own pregnancy, but also wrote that “An infant in the mother’s womb … is not considered a person who can be killed within the description of murder,” even if the pregnancy was quick. 

However unusual Mississippi’s law was by 1868, it was much more of an outlier 50 years later. 

In the late 19th century, states continued to pass stricter abortion laws, largely at the urging of doctors and the American Medical Association. The movement was led by Dr. Horatio Storer, a Boston doctor who believed fetal life began at conception, and that abortion was murder at any stage of a pregnancy. 

Historians say the physician-led anti-abortion movement painted midwives, many of whom were Black women, as “abortionists” in an effort to position themselves as better trained and morally upright – and win over more patients. Storer was also concerned that white Protestant women were using abortion to limit the size of their families, while he believed recent immigrants, many of whom were Catholic, regarded abortion as immoral.

“Of the nine States that had not yet criminalized abortion at all stages (as of 1868), all but one did so by 1910,” Alito wrote. That state was Mississippi. 

In 1909, state lawmakers considered a proposal to ban abortion at all stages of pregnancy, which had been backed by the Mississippi Medical Association. An abortion that ended a pregnancy would be manslaughter. 

“An infant in the mother’s womb, whether viable or not, is hereby declared a human being,” the legislation said. 

Yet the proposal didn’t become law, for reasons Mississippi Today couldn’t locate. 

Mississippi legislators considered another total abortion ban in 1918 but would not actually pass one until 1952. 

The lack of a ban didn’t mean that abortion was universally regarded as normal or morally acceptable. But it did mean, as one dismayed headline in the Jackson Daily News in 1911 put it, “Abortion Not a Crime.”

The article explained that a group of physicians had investigated an alleged abortion and contacted local law enforcement. But they found that there could be no prosecution because there was no law against an abortion before “practically four months pregnancy.” 

People facing criminal charges for performing an abortion that resulted in a woman’s death could try to use this point in their defense. 

Dr. F. E. Lee, for example, never denied that the abortion he performed in 1916 had led to the death of a young woman named Mary Miller. Instead, he claimed the procedure hadn’t been a crime. 

At his trial in Corinth in 1920, Lee’s lawyer said that because Miller’s pregnancy was not “quick,” he had violated no law by performing her abortion and should not be held responsible for her death.

The prosecutor rejected that argument, but not that reading of the law. He acknowledged that the “original undertaking was not condemned by the law,” but said the doctor was still liable for Miller’s death.

Lee was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary. But if Miller’s procedure had gone as intended, law enforcement would have had no grounds to get involved – making Mississippi an anomaly in the U.S. at the time. 

Late in the evening on July 25, 1945, a former policeman named B.J. Jennings heard a car speed over the bridge above his houseboat on the Pearl River, not far from downtown Jackson. He saw someone toss something out of the car and into the water. 

Later, he found a purse and pair of shoes in the river and called the .

His call helped law enforcement piece together an explanation for what had happened to 18-year-old Betty Massey, a waitress at Abe’s Cafe who had been missing for days. Her body was found a few days later, floating in Rhodes Creek near Terry. Police arrested Dr. B.F. Johnson and said Massey had died in his clinic following an illegal abortion. 

Massey’s death became a media event. Her portrait ran on the front page of the Clarion-Ledger, where stories suggested she was a tragic symbol of the dangers facing young women during the social tumult of World War II. The newspaper reported that the father of her baby, a soldier, had written her “a nasty letter … in which he relieved himself of any responsibility.”

Massey, a white woman, was a “small-town girl working in Jackson,” and a member of “a prominent Delta family.” One story described “perhaps the most tragic point” in her death: Her boarding house at 313 State Street had been located just two doors down from the state office charged with helping unmarried pregnant women. 

Their case workers could have helped her “overcome some of her fears, dreads, and anxieties and face the reality of her situation so that the desire to destroy herself and others is allayed,” a representative said.

Some news stories about the doctor charged in Massey’s death mentioned that he had previously been convicted of manslaughter in the death of a Black woman named Etta Perkins following an abortion. Her life and case got little attention on its own. 

He had appealed the conviction and was out on bond when he performed Massey’s abortion, the papers reported. 

For Massey’s death, prosecutors chose a harsher charge — “depraved heart murder.” Johnson ultimately pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. 

By the time Perkins and Massey died, abortion in the United States – though illegal at all stages of pregnancy in most of the country – was becoming safer. Abortion was the official cause of death of about 2,700 women in 1930, accounting for a fifth of all pregnancy-related deaths that year, according to the reproductive rights nonprofit the Guttmacher Institute. In the 1940s, the development of antibiotics reduced deaths by making it easier to treat infections after abortion. In 1950, about 300 women died following an abortion. 

It’s not clear how many people died following abortions in Mississippi in the 19th and 20th centuries. Vital records held at the state archives did not list abortion as a cause of death until the 1920s, and in some years after that, all pregnancy-related deaths were tallied together. 

Mississippi Today reviewed records from 1927 through 1940 that showed abortion was listed as the cause of death for roughly 30 to 50 women each year. More Black women than white women died: In 1930, for example, abortion was the cause of death for 15 white women and 26 Black women. 

In 1952, the Mississippi Medical Association asked the Legislature to pass a stricter abortion law. Lawmakers obliged, prohibiting the procedure at all stages of pregnancy. 

The new law said someone who provided an abortion could be charged with manslaughter and sentenced to one to 10 years in prison. If the woman died, the crime was murder. The only exception was to save the life of the mother, and the law required two doctors to make that determination in writing. 

Pro-life advocates often point out that women were rarely prosecuted for their own abortions prior to Roe. Historians largely agree, but that fact doesn’t account for the public shame and pressure to cooperate with law enforcement women could endure during trials of doctors and partners, Mary Ziegler, a law professor and expert on abortion history, has written. 

Mississippi’s 1952 abortion ban didn’t explicitly prohibit such prosecutions. Mississippi Today found that at least one woman was arrested and charged with her own attempted abortion after she refused to cooperate with the investigation of two men involved.

In September 1962, Jackson police got a tip: An abortion was set to take place in a few days at a Travel Inn Motel on Highway 51, just outside of the city. Officers waited outside Room 152. They would later say they could smell a chemical odor, like a powerful disinfectant, wafting out of the room, and heard the clanking of metal instruments or furniture being moved. 

When they opened the door, they found a woman named Mary Ann Aiken hiding in the bathroom, covered in a sheet and holding her skirt in her hand. She was arrested for participating in her own abortion and taken to a hospital for a medical examination. 

Aiken, whose name was often spelled Mary Ann Eakin or Mary Ann Eakin Johnson, refused to cooperate with the authorities.

During the trial of Leo Hall, one of the men charged with the illegal abortion, Aiken denied she had attempted to get an abortion, frustrating then-District Attorney Bill Waller, who said he had a signed statement from her declaring otherwise and that she could also be charged with perjury. Aiken also said she was a prostitute and had had sex with Hall, who reportedly had ties to the Dixie Mafia, perhaps helping to explain why she would not want to testify against him. 

The trial for Aiken herself was delayed because she had to give birth – the abortion had not been successful. She pled guilty to the crime of attempted abortion. 

The state could also expend significant time and resources investigating suspected abortion providers. 

In May 1968, a Baton Rouge woman met a doctor in a Jackson motel room. After he agreed to perform an abortion and she handed him $200 in cash, agents who had set up the sting burst into the room and arrested him. 

He was eventually acquitted by jurors who were unconvinced that the woman had ever been pregnant.

By the mid-1960s, discussion of abortion nationally was intensifying. Feminists called for abortion to be legal and free. Professional organizations of doctors, attorneys and psychiatrists began arguing for more liberal abortion laws. 

The 1967 Mississippi Boys’ State convention – attended primarily by well-off white high school boys who hoped to become state leaders – passed legislation making abortion legal when the pregnancy could affect the mother’s mental or physical health and when the fetus would be born with a serious deformity. Though it wasn’t actual legislation, some observers saw it as an indicator of where public opinion was heading. 

“In a few years these same boys will be of age, and in the not too distant future some of them will hold real offices in state government,” noted an opinion columnist in the Hattiesburg American. 

In 1966, Mississippi became one of the first states to add a new exception to its abortion ban, allowing women to get an abortion if they said they had been raped. Unlike Mississippi’s 2007 trigger ban, the law did not require them to report the rape to law enforcement. 

Some of opponents’ points echoed pro-life claims today: that only God could make a decision to end a pregnancy, and that a woman who got an abortion could feel guilty later in life. 

Supporters’ main arguments were based on racist fears around sex between Black men and white women. The Daily Herald of reported that the measure passed the House after a speech by Rep. George Payne Cossar of Tallahatchie, who told his colleagues that pregnancy could result from “rape between the races.”

“Are you going to force this poor woman to carry this burden?” he said. “This bill is designed to prevent disgrace in a family.”

As of early 1971, abortion was legal in five  states – New York, Alaska, California, Hawaii and Washington. 

That year, a Hattiesburg lawmaker thought Mississippi should join the list. Rep. Robert Lennon introduced a bill that would make abortions legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. 

“Abortion must be considered a medical procedure and a private one between a licensed physician and his patient,” he told the Clarion-Ledger. “It should not be a part of our criminal statutes.”

The bill provoked a furious outcry. Catholic leaders in the state urged their 90,000 parishioners to lobby against it. One opponent in the Legislature called it “a possibly well-intended attempt to legalize the murder of innocent babies.” 

The bill didn’t make it out of committee, and Lennon didn’t run for reelection. 

Two years later, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe provoked a more muted response in Mississippi. Religious leaders were split: Catholics and some in other denominations told local newspapers they saw the ruling as a sign of moral degradation. 

Rev. J.C. Harris, pastor of a United Methodist Church in Biloxi, called the ruling “wonderful.”

“I believe a woman and her doctor should do what she thinks fit.”

Man-on-the street interviews captured a range of views among ordinary Mississippians, too. Some echoed Harris’s perspective. 

One Delta valedictorian used her high school graduation speech to warn that Roe would lead to “garbage cans full of aborted fetuses.”

Some states actively resisted the high court’s ruling: Rhode Island didn’t have an abortion clinic until 1975. But Mississippi and most other Deep South states did not, said historian Daniel K. Williams, who has researched the pro-life movement. 

“In Mississippi at the time, the pro-life movement didn’t really have a very strong presence because in the early 1970s the pro-life movement was very Catholic and very Northern, and Mississippi had a pretty low Catholic population, considerably lower than neighboring Louisiana’s,” said Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “So, as a result, it was somewhat unclear in the early 1970s which direction Mississippi would go on abortion.”

An editorial in the Greenwood Commonwealth published the week after the ruling sounded relieved to declare that the Court had “essentially resolved” the legal question over abortion.

“The Supreme Court has very broadly liberalized abortion law and in so doing brought years of controversy and litigation to an end,” the editorial concluded. 

Nearly 50 years later, the state of Mississippi would claim before the Court that Roe was “egregiously wrong” and based on a flawed reading of U.S. history.

Left unexplained was Mississippi’s own unusual place in that story. 

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

First HBCU to offer prison education in Mississippi


Valley State first HBCU to offer prison college program in Mississippi

Incarcerated people at two prisons in the Delta will be able to start earning four-year degrees from Mississippi Valley State University this fall for the first time in more than two decades.  

Valley State’s Prison Educational Partnership Program (PEPP) is part of a growing number of colleges providing classes in prison with Second Chance Pell, a federal program that is restoring access to income-based financial aid for incarcerated people. 

Seven colleges and nonprofits currently offer for-credit college classes and vocational courses in prisons in Mississippi, but PEPP will be the first program run by a Historically Black college in the state. 

Provost Kathie Stromile Golden said that’s significant because while people of any race can participate in the program, in Mississippi, incarcerated people are disproportionately Black. PEPP will be a way for them to form a connection with an institution of the Black community on the outside. 

Stromile Golden said she views prison education as ensuring incarcerated students know their communities haven’t forgotten about them. 

“Many of the people who are incarcerated are parents and relatives of our students,” Stromile Golden said. “It’s in our best interest to do something like this, because these are the very same people who will come back to our community.” 

The university has accepted about 50 incarcerated students for the first semester of classes at Bolivar County Correctional Facility and the Delta Correctional Facility, a prison in Greenwood for people who violated parole. The Second Chance Pell program is limited to incarcerated students with a high school degree or GED diploma who will eventually be released. 

Rochelle McGee-Cobbs, an associate professor of criminal justice who will be the director of PEPP, worked with faculty and administration over the course of last year to set up the prison education program. She made multiple trips to the prisons to meet with potential students, bringing paper applications because they didn’t have access to computers to apply online. 

The students expressed interest in business administration, computer science and engineering technology courses, so those are the majors that Valley State is planning to offer, McGee-Cobbs said. 

She doesn’t know yet what courses PEPP will offer in the fall, because that will depend on the students’ transcripts, which she drove to Bolivar County on a Thursday in June to collect. 

“Here at Mississippi Valley State University, regardless of where a student is at when they come in, we try to make sure that we nourish them,” McGee-Cobbs said. “We try to make sure that we cater to the needs of each student.” 

Stromile Golden said Valley won’t know until the fall how many faculty are going to teach in the program. Instructors will be paid for travel to the prisons, but the university is working out whether instructors will reach courses as part of their regular load or as an additional class. 

Faculty who elect to participate in the program will receive training from Jamii Sisterhood, a nonprofit that works to increase the number of Black people teaching in prisons. Stromile Golden said the training, which is supported by a grant from Project Freedom, will emphasize culturally competent approaches to teaching incarcerated students without adopting a “savior” mindset, which can be demeaning. 

“Teaching inside is not the same as teaching outside,” she said.

Valley State’s incarcerated students will have access to the university’s counseling and financial aid offices. Stromile Golden and McGee-Cobbs are also working to partner with re-entry programs to assist students when they are released 

College prisons like PEPP, supported by federal financial aid that incarcerated people need to afford classes, were the norm for decades. That changed when President Bill Clinton revoked access to Pell Grants in the 1994 bill as a way to look “tough on crime.” Hundreds of college prison programs shut down, cut off from the public funding that made them viable. 

Over the last 15 years, as incarceration has become more expensive due to the growing population, lawmakers have started revisiting prison education programs, which studies repeatedly have shown reduce recidivism. 

Second Chance Pell, the program Valley State is participating in, was started in 2015 as an “experiment” by President Barack Obama’s administration to give incarcerated people access to Pell Grants. In December 2020, Congress passed a law restoring full access, regardless of a person’s sentence, to Pell Grants. 

In Mississippi, Burl Cain, the Department of Corrections commissioner, has supported prison education programs and restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people as “a huge opportunity to cut costs.” Cain has met with Holmes Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which also participate in the Second Chance Pell program. 

“We need this training and skills in the prison to cut costs because not only do classes keep prisoners focused and calm, we need the training so they can train other prisoners to help us run the prison,” he said in an MDOC press release. 

The emphasis on prison education as a way to reduce recidivism can also be seen in the guidelines for Second Chance Pell. According to a USDOE fact sheet, participating schools should “only enroll students in postsecondary education and training programs that prepare them for high-demand occupations from which they are not legally barred from entering due to restrictions on formerly incarcerated individuals obtaining any necessary licenses or certifications for those occupations.” 

Stromile Golden said that Valley State’s prison education program is also a form of “restorative justice,” an approach to criminal justice that involves addressing how an act of harm has affected a whole community, not just the perpetrator and the victim. 

“For African Americans, this is part of our legacy, and we are all steeped in the Baptist church code that says, ‘forgive, forgive, forgive.’ But for the grace of God, easily any of us could be on the other side of it,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s the right thing to do. It’s needed. It’s a win-win for our community.” 

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

Stone County man convicted of sex crime against minor

79 views – WXXV Staff – 2022-05-27 11:18:57

A Stone County jury deliberated just 35 minutes before finding a man guilty of a sex against a child.

67-year-old Michael Alexander was convicted of touching a child for lustful purposes.

The victim testified that Alexander, a family friend, would take her to baseball games and take her hunting and fishing. She said he used those events as an opportunity to molest her. He also moltested her at his home and at his…

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Lawmakers will be hard pressed to ban medication abortion, advocates say


Can lawmakers keep abortion pills out of Mississippi? Local, international activists say no.

In the days after the leak of a draft opinion showing the U.S. Supreme Court will likely overturn Roe v. Wade, hundreds of Mississippians visited the website Plan C to learn about ordering abortion medication online. 

From Jackson and Long Beach, Oxford and tiny Centerville, people used the site to find out how to obtain the pills that will likely become the easiest, cheapest way to end a pregnancy in post-Roe Mississippi. 

In the last week of April, 175 people in the state went to the site. In the first four days of May, around the time the leak was published on the evening of May 2, that number rose to 306, according to Elisa Wells, a co-founder of Plan C, which doesn’t ship pills itself but helps people find how to get them. 

The next week, traffic stayed elevated, at 275. 

Opponents and supporters of abortion rights agree: After Roe, the future of the abortion fight in Mississippi lies in a set of pills that can end a pregnancy under 10 weeks. 

Mississippi law forbids the use of telehealth to prescribe the medication. But the founder of the organization Aid Access, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, is based in Austria, and when she writes a prescription for a Mississippian, she is following that country’s laws. 

She sends the prescription to a pharmacist in India, who can mail them right to a doorstep in Belzoni or . People can also buy the pills directly from online pharmacies based overseas. 

Anti-abortion lawmakers have vowed to crack down on the cross-border transactions that bring the medication here, where strict laws have left just one abortion clinic standing. But they’ll face determined opposition from local activists allied with prescribers and pharmacies scattered around the world. 

“With all of the medical technology we have now, it’s ludicrous for the antis (anti-abortion advocates) to think we aren’t going to do it and help each other,” said Michelle Colón, executive director of SHERo Mississippi, a nonprofit that aims to promote leadership among Black women and girls in the state. “We are going to do it right under their noses, and they won’t know, or they will know it, but they’re not going to be able to prove it.”

At , Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, more than half of patients get medication abortions. Mississippi law requires them to take the first pill, mifepristone, which stops the pregnancy from growing, at the clinic. 

READ MORE: Abortion in Mississippi – our full coverage

The next set of pills, misoprostol, opens the cervix and triggers cramping and bleeding to end the pregnancy in a process that looks like a miscarriage. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the pills in 2000. In December, the federal government permanently authorized telemedicine prescriptions for the drugs, but Mississippi and other states ban that practice. 

Yet buying the pills outside of the formal medical system is not uncommon for Mississippians. A 2020 study examined more than 6,000 requests from U.S. residents for abortion pills from an online telemedicine service in 2017 and 2018. It found that Mississippians requested the pills more frequently than people in any other state, likely a consequence of the barriers to accessing abortion through in-state providers. 

The state’s 2007 trigger law, which will go into effect if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, bans abortion except in cases of rape and when the mother’s life is in danger. It doesn’t make a distinction between different types of abortion, so it will prohibit medication abortions as well as surgical procedures. 

But lawmakers see a need for additional action against the pills.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, has authored numerous abortion restrictions. A separate law regarding medication abortion could help direct law enforcement to focus on that issue, and the Legislature could also allocate funding to support that work, he said.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, is photographed during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in Jackson, Miss. Fillingane helped usher through the Senate Public and Welfare Committee, a bill that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Supporters and opponents anticipate a court fight if passed into law.

“We know this is a new layer of law enforcement that we’re going to be expecting of you, in the agency, attorney general’s office — whomever it’ll apply to. You’re going to need more staff, you’re going to need more resources in order to enforce that new law,” Fillingane said in an interview with Mississippi Today. “It could very well be not only a directive further fleshing out the trigger law language, but also an appropriations bill that sends money to that agency and agencies that will be tasked with enforcing the law.”

Fillingane says a prohibition on abortion drugs could be enforced through lawsuits against the people, organizations and manufacturers sending prohibited medications into Mississippi.

Mississippi’s reproductive rights activists don’t see how that could work given that many providers and pharmacies are based abroad. 

“I’m not sure where (Fillingane) thinks the pills are going to be coming from,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and executive director of the Alabama-based Yellowhammer Fund. “Arkansas? He’s just going to, like, come on over there in his seersucker suit and demand that these people be prosecuted? He’s not going to go over to Austria and impress anyone and round up Rebecca Gomperts. … India’s not going to be impressed by Joey Fillingane and let him come over there and round people up and jail them.”

If the past is any indicator, Gomperts — an abortion rights advocate — won’t be swayed by the state of Mississippi. The FDA sent Aid Access a warning letter in 2019 telling it to stop selling “misbranded and unapproved new drugs” in the U.S., because the specific brands Aid Access provides its patients are not FDA-approved.

Gomperts has continued to operate the site. 

The organization works with pharmacies based in India because generics produced in the country are high quality and government-supervised, she has said. She sees strict regulation of abortion medication as based on politics. 

Research shows medication abortion is safe: The FDA recorded 22 deaths among people who used mifepristone from 2000 to 2017, an average of one in 155,000, compared to a maternal mortality rate of 17 in 100,000 as of 2018. In February, a study in the Lancet found that 1% of people who used Aid Access’ services to end a pregnancy reported requiring medical treatment, either through a blood transfusion or IV antibiotics, a higher rate than recorded in clinical settings, but one researchers still described as rare.

Christie Pitney is a certified nurse midwife and a U.S.-based clinician for Aid Access. She and her colleagues in the U.S. provide telemedicine services for patients in states where that is legal, while Gomperts handles prescribing for patients where that practice is banned. Pitney said state laws won’t stop Aid Access from operating.

“Aid Access and our attorney are confident that there’s just no jurisdiction within the states to regulate Dr. Gomperts and stop her from providing those services,” she said. “So it will definitely continue to be available in Mississippi, unless they remove the fact that it’s a federal to open someone else’s mail. Until they get to that level, we’ll still be here.”

More generally, the law in this area is murky and contested. If a provider in California was complying with California laws when prescribing a medication abortion for a patient in Mississippi, legal questions arise: Which state would have jurisdiction? Even if a state could prevail in a against an overseas provider, how would it enforce the judgment?

“They don’t keep money in Mississippi,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas and an expert on health law. “There’s not a bank account that Aid Access has that the state can draw upon to recover the judgment. So it just may have little effect on Aid Access. Or no effect, I should say.”

Fillingane said enforcement of laws banning abortion medication could work like other drug laws in Mississippi. But there’s no clear precedent for states banning and criminalizing drugs that are FDA-approved, safe and widely used around the country. 

The warning letter to Aid Access came from the FDA because the federal government is responsible for regulating the trade through which pharmaceuticals are distributed around the country.

“We’re in a big, huge, gray zone, and nobody really knows exactly how it will end,” said Laurie Sobel, associate director for women’s health policy at KFF, a nonprofit focused on health policy research. 

This legal gray area is playing out in a Mississippi lawsuit.

GenBioPro, the manufacturer of a generic version of mifepristone, sued State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and the health department in 2020, arguing that the state’s strict regulations conflict with the FDA’s rules.

In many ways, Mississippi law treats abortion pills like any other abortion, requiring patients to go through a counseling session and ultrasound before taking mifepristone in a doctor’s presence at the clinic. The FDA, however, allows more practitioners to prescribe mifepristone and says patients can take the pill in their own homes. 

The GenBioPro lawsuit claims it is unconstitutional for states to regulate FDA-approved substances much more stringently than the federal authorities because the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution explicitly gives the federal government the authority to regulate interstate commerce, and implicitly prohibits states from passing laws that excessively burden that commerce. 

A Massachusetts ban on Zohydro, a new and controversial but FDA-approved opioid, was overturned by a federal court that found the state ban was preempted by federal law. But legal experts interviewed by Mississippi Today said there’s little case law in this area otherwise. 

Rally organizers Michelle Colon and pro-abortion supporters from across the country rally in Smith Park in Jackson to show their alliegiance for a woman’s right to choose, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

Regardless of how preemption arguments play out, advocates and attorneys believe it will be easier and more common for states to enforce medication abortion bans by prosecuting people inside their borders. That could be friends or relatives who share abortion medication with a pregnant person, or even pregnant people themselves in states that criminalize self-managed abortions.

Pitney said Aid Access recognizes patients in states like Mississippi will assume greater legal risk if Roe is overturned. The organization refers patients to the legal helpline operated by the nonprofit If/When/How. 

Mississippi’s trigger law banning abortion in most cases specifies that it can’t be used to prosecute a woman for ending her own pregnancy, but any person who “knowingly or recklessly performs or attempts to perform or induce an abortion in the State of Mississippi” can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The state also has a law against the “killing of an unborn child” that applies starting at conception. The law states it doesn’t apply to any lawful abortion, but if all abortions become unlawful in Mississippi, it could also be used to prosecute attempts to end a pregnancy, and there’s no exception protecting a pregnant person from such prosecution. 

The technological advances that created medication abortion mean that post-Roe, criminalized abortions will be much safer than they were before 1973. But those advances also mean that people could be subjected to new levels of state scrutiny if and prosecutors take a hard line in enforcing medication abortion bans. 

“Everyone is carrying around tiny little computers in their hands,” Elizabeth Sepper, law professor and health care expert at the University of Texas, said. “States will probably engage in electronic surveillance, figuring out who are the actors most likely to be distributing these particular pills, tracking them, determining who they are in communication with.”

Such surveillance has already played a role in prosecutions relating to pregnancy outcomes in Mississippi. In 2018, Oktibbeha County charged Latice Fisher with second-degree murder after she delivered a baby she said was stillborn. 

Prosecutors looked through her cell phone data and found a search for “buy abortion pills,” which they used to establish motive and suggest the pills may have affected her pregnancy and delivery. After reproductive rights advocates got involved, the charges were eventually dropped. 

In the future, advocates fear that a person who arrives at the hospital with complications from a miscarriage could face intrusive questioning from hospital staff and police seeking to determine whether a crime has been committed. Their internet search history could be used against them.

“What I think we will see more of is that pregnancy losses, which are incredibly common … will be subject to policing, surveillance, questioning, intrusive, really harmful conversations with health care providers and law enforcement, because oftentimes miscarriages and self-managed abortions appear identically, or they’re indistinguishable from a medical perspective,” said Dana Sussman, acting executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which worked on Fisher’s case. 

And local prosecutors could choose to handle investigations and charges very differently, so pregnant people in Mississippi could become subject to greater scrutiny based solely on where they live. 

“It is remarkable the amount of power and discretion local prosecutors have,” Sussman said. 

In Mississippi, abortion rights advocates are less concerned about the availability of the pills and more worried about the criminalization of people who use them — and even of people who naturally lose a pregnancy and find themselves treated like potential criminals. 

Even if Mississippi passes no new abortion restrictions beyond the trigger ban, zealous anti-abortion local prosecutors could come up with a justification for serious charges when they believe an abortion has taken place or been attempted. Black and brown women will be at particular risk of criminalization and punishment, Colón said. 

Fillingane says he is not interested in legislation that would fine or punish people for using the pills. He also doesn’t envision Mississippi law enforcement taking drastic measures to seek out people who possess the pills. 

“I don’t foresee that happening in the normal course and scope of things as a law enforcement mechanism,” he said. “I think what you do is you cut it off at the source. That’s much easier to enforce, and it’s much more effective to enforce.”

Advocates don’t buy that. But whatever steps lawmakers and prosecutors take, they are determined to maintain access to abortion medication inside state borders.

This time, Colón said, there will be no coat hangers or drinking of bleach.

“Medication abortion is safe,” she said. “I’m not being quiet about it.”

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

Jackson County Sheriff’s Department opens crime lab

84 views – Jack Hammett – 2022-05-05 17:26:40

In , Sheriff Mike Ezell of opens up the department’s lab, the first in the state to be owned and operated by a local agency.

The traffic arrests and other interactions we see on the street level are just the beginning of criminal investigations. Behind the scenes, science determines the future of many who face charges.

From here on out, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department will…

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