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State weighs in for… the defense

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
May 3, 2004
It's rare in Lauderdale County for a defendant indicted for capital murder to go to trial. Capital murder cases are usually resolved through plea bargains.
Over the last few years, capital murder defendants have pleaded guilty and accepted life sentences without the possibility of parole. In three instances, the charge has been reduced to manslaughter and 20-year prison sentences were handed down.
Most defendants avoid a jury trial if they can because it's an all-or-nothing gamble.
Win and you're free. (But, for the record, only one murder defendant of any kind has been acquitted since I moved to Meridian in March 1998.) Lose and you could be sentenced to death. And, these days, Mississippi doesn't mind executing someone now and again.
All that said, there's a capital murder trial set in Lauderdale County Circuit Court for May 24 and it looks like it might actually happen.
Office of Capital Defense Counsel
Jermaine Alexander Ramsey, 19, was indicted last year for capital murder in the March 2003 shooting death of William Gill.
Ramsey was ruled "indigent" and Meridian attorney Craig Conway was assigned as his public defender. Conway was admitted to the Bar less than a year ago, and asked the court to appoint someone from the Office of Capital Defense Counsel to help him.
CDC staff attorney James Lappan was named as co-counsel. He filed more than 40 pre-trial motions in February, which is not unusual for the CDC because it takes its job seriously.
Circuit Judge Larry Roberts heard arguments about the motions during a hearing earlier this month. They covered everything from expert witnesses and hearsay, to mitigating factors and the defendant's criminal and medical records.
Flood of motions
Other pre-trial motions in the CDC's exhaustive filing addressed:
Disclosure: If the state wants to seek the death penalty, the CDC argued, then it should have to "open the bag" on all its information. That includes everything favorable to the defense and everything unfavorable to the prosecution.
Suppression: Ramsey apparently made a statement to investigators about a gun. His CDC lawyer says he may be mentally impaired and his statement should be thrown out because he did not make a "knowing and intelligent waiver" of his right to remain silent.
Jury selection: Lappan wants to send questionnaires to potential jurors, interview them individually during jury selection and have a lot of leeway in what he asks them. He wants the judge to prevent the district attorney's office from striking jurors who say they would consider a life sentence.
Undue influence: Calls for the judge to sequester jurors during the trial, keep members of the victim's family from sitting in sight of jurors and remove family members from the courtroom if they get emotional.
Penalty phase: A capital murder trial is divided into two phases. In the first, the jury considers only the defendant's guilt or innocence. If the verdict is guilty, the trial moves into a penalty phase. The prosecution tells jurors why they should impose a death sentence; the defense tells them why they shouldn't.
Among the motions Lappan filed in this area was one challenging the constitutionality of a Mississippi law dealing with the death penalty and a demand that the jury view the execution process.
Lappan also asked for a 24-hour "cooling off" period between the guilt and penalty phases.
Kind of insulting
I'm trying to imagine how biased a circuit court would have to be for any of the next three motions to be necessary. It must happen somewhere in Mississippi, I guess, or the CDC wouldn't have filed them:
Prevent the district attorney's staff from telling potential witnesses not to cooperate with defense investigators.
Allow the defendant to be present at his trial and assist in his own defense.
Prevent the bailiffs from letting the jury see the defendant brought into court in shackles.
Finally, Lappan filed a motion asking for permission to file more motions as necessary.
What's next?
The CDC has filed a memo with Judge Roberts giving its reasons why May 24 is probably too soon to hold the trial. It cites the need for further investigation.
Unknown at this point is whether any plea bargain will be discussed; there is no offer on the table right now.
In the event of a plea bargain, or if the district attorney's office announces it will not seek the death penalty, the CDC's help evaporates. The Office of Capital Defense Counsel is for "death-eligible" defendants only.