High Court rejects petition for innocence of man sentenced to death in 1994 for murder of Flora

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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – A man sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of a Flora woman will not have another day in court.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has dismissed a conviction petition filed by lawyers for Justin Underwood.

Underwood was sentenced to death in 1995 for the murder of Virginia Ann Harris. Harris was shot four times and left for dead in a cattle hole on former US Highway 49.

Underwood was 22 at the time.

A request for post-conviction relief has been filed on behalf of Underwood by the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel, the office that handles appeals for most of the state’s death row inmates.

Underwood’s attorneys filed the appeal saying there was new evidence in the case, the evidence in the case had been suppressed and the state presented false testimony at the Underwood trial . Underwood also claimed he had an ineffective lawyer and that the jury relied on racial stereotypes in making their decision. He was also asking for forensic tests on certain evidence recovered from the crime scene.

Judges dealt with each of Underwood’s claims individually, including that new evidence had been uncovered, including his claim that Lindsay Harris, the victim’s husband, was having an affair at the time of the murder.

“At this point, Underwood has to show that … the new evidence was discovered after the trial … it could not have been discovered by due diligence before the trial … .. and it would probably produce a result or a different verdict in the new trial, ”the court wrote.

The court said Underwood’s claims that Harris was the killer were not new evidence because Underwood “attempted to blame Harris as the perpetrator” in his first trial.

The defendant also raised questions about how officers got the gun and whether there are new advancements in gun science that could determine whether the recovered gun fired the bullets that went. killed Mrs. Harris.

“He argued that whether the state gun expert had been barred from testifying or the bullets recovered from the victim’s body were fired from the weapon recovered from Underwood’s car or had been cross-examined on scientific consensus, the outcome would have been different, ”the court wrote.

The judges disagreed, saying suppressing this testimony or allowing cross-examination probably would not have made a difference “in light of Underwood’s confession that he used the gun to kill. the victim “.

Mrs. Harris had been shot four times. A bullet traveled from his back to his right lung, diaphragm and liver. A second bullet hit the right side of his back and penetrated his right lung. A third bullet hit Ms. Harris, passed through her left ear and the left side of her neck before hitting her right shoulder. The last bullet entered and left the victim’s left arm, court records show.

“The angles of the gunshot wounds matched the fact that Ms. Harris was on her knees and the shooter was standing behind her,” according to testimony from Dr. Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy.

The state alleged that Underwood stole his uncle’s gun. Underwood’s uncle Charlie Palmer found the gun in his vehicle, a yellow Oldsmobile Cutlass, and reported it to Madison County Sheriff’s Department deputies.

Underwood, however, says MPs found the gun while conducting a “warrantless search of Mr. Underwood’s car, contrary to Deputy Roberts’ testimony at trial,” his lawyers say.

Lawyers for Underwood also said the state suppressed evidence, including a witness statement that he saw the victim in the husband’s car driving towards the scene of the crime on the morning of the crime, as well as the testimony of Deputy Sheriff Nate Johnson. .

According to an affidavit from Pamela Hannah, an investigator with the Capital Attorneys Office after conviction, Deputy Johnson “told me during his investigation that he noticed Mr. Underwood’s vehicle had a serious leak. ‘oil”.

“As a result, he went and… searched the area where eyewitness testimony located Mr. Underwood’s alleged vehicle at the time of the murder. Deputy Johnson reported the discovery to Deputy Chief Sheriff Hubert Roberts. Based on the discovery, which the trial attorney received from the state of Mississippi, however, it appears that this information was never shared with the defense. “

Hannah said Johnson added that when he appeared at the courthouse to testify, “another law enforcement officer asked him to leave because this officer did not want the defense to be able to call the ‘Deputy Johnson as a witness “.

Wilton “Parker” Rowland said in a similar affidavit that he “witnessed a senior Madison County Sheriff’s Office official tell MP Nathaniel” Nate “Johnson to leave the courthouse so as not to not be available to be called as a witness by the defense. “

Parker, who now lives in Cleveland, Georgia, was a bailiff assigned to the Underwood trial, he said.

Rowland’s affidavit is presented below.

Johnson was still working in the sheriff’s office when he spoke to Hannah when the affidavit was filed in March 2020. It was not clear if he was still in the sheriff’s office today. We have reached out to Madison County spokesperson Heath Hall to confirm and are awaiting a response.

The judges, however, ruled that Underwood’s claims were subject to procedural requirements. “Notwithstanding … Underwood has not shown that the state suppressed any of this evidence or that with the evidence the outcome of the trial would have been any different.”

Underwood also alleged that the state presented false evidence. At trial, the state presented two typed confessions from Underwood, one that he broke into his uncle’s house and stole a gun, and the other that he used the gun to kill the victim.

“Underwood now claims he never confessed and that officers made him sign blank forms, which were filled out later. But Underwood’s current claim that he did not confess at all is contrary to its previous position taken in the removal hearing, in the direct appeal and in the original request for post-conviction relief, ”the court wrote.

The suspect was arrested on March 9. On that day, MPs say he admitted to breaking into his uncle’s house and stealing the tools and weapons.

On March 10, MPs said he admitted to killing Ms Harris, shooting her at Lake Bozeman. “However, he said Mrs Harris asked him to kill her because her husband gave him AIDS,” court records say.

Ms. Harris, who was 63 when she died, did not have AIDS.

Court records indicate that Underwood was arrested by Deputy Hubert Roberts and made his first statement to Terry Barfield, an investigator in the Sheriff’s Office, and WH Hathcock of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The then suspect made his second statement to Barfield and investigator Larry Saxton.

Madison County Supervisor Paul Griffin, who was in the Sheriff’s Department at the time, said in a February 2020 affidavit that Roberts and other MPs at the time had used several tactics to gain information about suspects, including “giving suspects blank forms to sign, then later typing in the information without the suspect knowing what he was signing, such statements, search consents and waivers of rights.

He said the tactic “caused most offenders, but especially young black men, to surrender their rights without realizing it and end up in jail for weeks or months without a hearing.”

In a follow-up affidavit filed in October 2020, he said he had “no personal knowledge of any MPs giving suspects blank statement forms to sign, so MPs can type fabricated statements.”

The High Court said Underwood’s claims were not only procedurally barred, but were “not credible and (are) unfounded”.

We have contacted Griffin and are awaiting a response.

Underwood also raised other allegations, including one that the jury mistakenly relied on racial stereotypes in making their decision and another that Lindsay Harris was having an affair at the time of his wife’s death.

During the Underwood trial, the defense suggested that Mr. Harris had been seen several times in Flora on the day of the murder and that he was “seen in town with a younger blonde woman”, according to the files of the court.

Mr. Harris, however, testified that he was working in Jackson at the time.

The incident happened on February 15, 1994. Harris spoke to his wife before leaving home that morning to go to his farm produce business at Jackson’s Farmer’s Market. Mr. Harris returned home around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, court records show.

Ms Harris was not home when he arrived and he discovered that her makeup drawer had been opened, the lights were on, and a makeup bottle had been left upside down.

Mr. Harris went to feed the cattle around 5 p.m. and called authorities around midnight when his wife did not return.

“The newly discovered evidence of Underwood … is nothing more than speculation and innuendo and, therefore, insufficient to warrant a new trial,” the state wrote in its response to Underwood’s petition.

As for Underwood’s claims about racism on the jury, an affidavit from Jan Rodgers appears to back them up. The Madison resident was on the jury in the Underwood trial.

She told the Capital Advocate’s Office after the conviction that “an elderly black juror gave an influential speech to jurors, expressing his opinion that Mr. Underwood should be convicted. the elderly black juror said, “We cannot continue to let these black men get away with this.”

Rodgers told CPCC she “understood he meant that we should condemn Mr. Underwood as an example for black men, who commit violent crimes more often than other races.” Following the speech, several members of the jury found guilty, she said.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed, saying the juror’s comments “fall short of the juror’s misconduct in this case (and that) there is no indication that the jurors relied on them. on racial stereotypes or racial animosity to reach their guilty verdict “.

Krissy Nobile, director of the CPCC, says she has not had the opportunity to read the court decision.

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