Habitual offender gets life sentence for gun charge

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
June 16, 2004
The jury in Billy Ray Bradley's trial had no idea a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole, hung in the balance.
It's against the rules of court to tell jurors that kind of thing because it's distracting. A jury's job is to decide guilt or innocence not agonize over possible repercussions for the defendant.
Bradley stood trial Monday and Tuesday in Lauderdale County Circuit Court for possession of a firearm on Sept. 4, 2003.
While this is not against the law for most people, it is for him, because he's a convicted felon. Bradley was convicted of burglary in Jackson County in 1980 and sentenced to three years. In 1997, he was convicted in the same county of aggravated assault and got eight years.
One of the conditions of his release was to stay away from guns.
Now, you don't often see people tried for "felon in possession of a firearm," and it's not the kind of charge that carries a life sentence unless the defendant's criminal history makes him subject to the more severe of Mississippi's "three strikes" laws.
That's what happened to Bradley.
Conviction on a relatively minor felony translated into a mandatory life sentence. Not even Circuit Judge Larry Roberts had to authority to change it.
Prosecution strategy
And, that's exactly what the prosecution team, made up of Assistant District Attorneys Dan Angero and Lisa Howell, had in mind.
Before you fault the system for over-zealous prosecution, consider that they had a reason and they gave the defendant an alternative.
The same grand jury that indicted Bradley for gun possession in November 2003 also indicted him for three counts of statutory rape.
The youngest alleged victim was 11 years old. During a trial, Bradley would have had the constitution right to confront his accusers. This means the girls would have been required to testify and answer questions in open court about what happened.
But, as any conviction would do, Angero and Howell chose to try him for the gun possession.
For the record, the prosecution offered Bradley a plea bargain, a joint offer on both the gun possession and rape indictments. It involved something less than a life sentence, although Howell declined to discuss the specifics. The families of the alleged rape victims.
Bradley turned it down.
Meanwhile, the trial that did happen …
Back to Sept. 4, 2003. The Meridian Police Department was looking for Bradley to serve arrest warrants for the alleged rapes.
Detective Denise McMullen got a tip about his location, and Bradley was taken into custody on North Frontage Road near Kentucky Fried Chicken. He was carrying a tan suitcase.
At the police station, his pockets were emptied. Their contents included a blue Wal-Mart bag with bullets in it. Inside the suitcase was a VCR with a videotape pushed halfway in. When officers picked the VCR up, it rattled. When they took the tape out, they found a gun hidden inside.
Bradley at first denied any knowledge of the gun, but eventually said he was holding it for a friend.
He was not accused of using the gun in the commission of a crime. He didn't shoot anyone with it, he didn't threaten to use it during an armed robbery. Mere possession is enough for a two-time loser.
Public defender Pat Jordan did what he could. He attacked inconsistencies in police testimony. He said Bradley had not been properly Mirandized. He challenged the officers' search of the suitcase.
None of it made much of an impression on the jury. The panel brought back a "guilty" verdict in 30 minutes.
In Mississippi, habitual offender laws commonly called "three strikes" laws come in two strengths.
Statutory maximum: A defendant convicted of a felony receives the maximum sentence allowed by law, without the possibility of parole, if: 1) he has at least two prior felony convictions arising out of separate incidents at separate times; and 2) he was sentenced to at least one year in prison for one of those offenses.
Life sentence: A defendant convicted of a felony receives a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, if both of the above conditions are true and: 1) he
actually served at least a year in jail on two prior convictions; and 2) one of his prior convictions was for a violent crime.
These are mandatory sentences. They apply only to people convicted in jury trials and defendants facing the more severe "three strikes" law often accept a plea bargain to avoid the possibility of a life sentence.

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