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Bill would limit how long those convicted could seek relief, even if wrongfully convicted

Legislation being debated in a conference committee would restrict how “Goon Squad” victims and others can get relief if they have been wrongfully convicted.

House Bill 1253 would impose a one-year limitation on newly discovered evidence. 

The bill passed the House. The Senate passed an amended version. The House invited conference. Conferees are Kevin Horan, Lance Varner and Celeste in the House and Joey Fillingane, Daniel Sparks and Derrick Simmons in the Senate. 

“It would impact the constitutional right to access the courts in Mississippi by any inmate — innocent persons and Goon Squad victims included,” Krissy Nobile, director of the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel, said of HB 1253. “It is terrible legislation that is detached from how the legal system actually works.”

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office, which has been pushing for the passage, defends the bill.

“HB 1253 streamlines the pathway to justice and closure for victims of crime and families of homicide victims, restoring some balance to the post-conviction appellate process,” said Fitch’s chief of staff, Michelle Williams.It would be a wonderful way to mark Crime Victims’ Rights Week next week with passage of this important legislation.”

The bill is being touted as a way to streamline appeals of those who have been convicted, but defense lawyers worry that this change may erode constitutional rights.

In January 2023, five deputies for the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department and a Richland police officer, who were part of a “Goon Squad” operation, broke into a house without a warrant, tortured two Black men, Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, threatened to use a sex toy on them and shoved a gun in Jenkins’ mouth and shot him. To conceal their crimes, they destroyed surveillance footage, planted false evidence and lied to investigators.

Last month, a federal judge sentenced those officers to between 18 and 40 years in prison. They received similar sentences in state court.

But an investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today and The New York Times uncovered allegations that torture, coerced statements and false incident reports involving, not only these six officers, but more than a dozen others with cases that may stretch back two decades. Some of those interviewed alleged that deputies also planted evidence and filed false charges against them.

Rankin County District Attorney Bubba Bramlett has said his office is examining pending cases involving these six officers. In any cases where their testimony was essential or the integrity of the investigation may have been compromised, those cases are being dismissed, he said.

But Bramlett has declined to explain how far back his office will look, and questions remain about how many of those arrested by the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department on drug charges have been either wrongfully charged or convicted.

State Public Defender Andre de Gruy sees problems with this legislation for cases involving claims of wrongful convictions.

“For this [Goon Squad] scandal, it would be one year from passage,” said State Public Defender Andre de Gruy. “Future scandals might be harder to predict, and a lawyer miscalculating and not filing on time would not be an excuse.”

Nobile said a one-year window is hardly enough time to develop new evidence and file a petition. “The discovery of new evidence and the development in forensic sciences sometimes takes years to develop,” she said.

For instance, the last five people exonerated from Mississippi’s death row were wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years on average, she said.

If this new bill had been the law, she said these five people might have been executed, only for them to be exonerated after their deaths.

Nobile said the Mississippi Supreme Court has recently decided that it has no power to recognize constitutional rights after someone is convicted, even if those rights are violated.

“My concern about the core constitutional rights is that they deserve to be protected because they are, by their very nature, in the state and-or federal constitution,” she said. “When a person’s criminal case is infected with constitutional defects, especially when a verdict is made unsafe as a result, finality is not a legitimate interest. In that event, finality is a fiction, and all that exists is an interest in expediency.”

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