Race-based jury at heart of death-case appeal

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NEW ORLEANS – An attorney for Mississippi’s only condemned female inmate urged the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to uphold a district court decision to grant her client a new trial because of the racial makeup of her jury.

At issue is a March 2015 ruling by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of Jackson to grant Lisa Jo Chamberlin a new trial because, as Reeves wrote in his opinion, prosecutors wrongfully removed blacks from the potential jury pool for Chamberlin, who is white.

Lisa Jo Chamberlin

Mississippi Department of Corrections

Lisa Jo Chamberlin

“Discrimination on the basis of race impacts the entire judicial system and jury system,” said Elizabeth Carlyle, a Missouri attorney representing Chamberlin, who was convicted in 2006 by a Forrest County jury in the deaths of two people.

“We contend the district court properly found” race-based discrimination in her trial’s jury process,” Carlyle said.

Carlyle, assisted by Jackson attorney Michael Cowen, said the trial’s prosecutor did not ask potential jurors questions in open court, but relied solely on their responses to a 50-question questionnaire.

The state, represented by Cameron Benton, an assistant attorney general, argued that Reeves’ decision to set Chamberlin free and grant a new trial was incorrect.

“I don’t think we have clear and convincing evidence that discrimination occurred,” Benton told the judges. She asked them to reverse Reeves’ decision and send the case back to him for  reconsideration.

Chamberlin, a 43-year-old Oregon native, was convicted on two counts of capital murder involving the robbery and brutal deaths of two people in Hattiesburg. She and her co-defendant were accused of killing the pair and transporting their dismembered bodies to Kansas, where authorities found their remains in a freezer.

The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office had appealed Reeves’ decision to the 5th Circuit.

“This case did not involve any issues of race,” the state said in its appeal, because Chamberlin is white and the victims were white.

The Attorney General’s office also said that Reeves, who is black, “interjected (his) own reasons” for those of the local jury and was wrong to vacate Chamberlin’s conviction and sentence.

The federal appeals court judges hearing arguments Tuesday were W. Eugene Davis, Edith Clement and Gregg J. Costa. Clement, suffering from bronchitis, wrote questions, which Davis asked for her.

After the hearing, Cowen said he seeks a “fair outcome” for his client.

Carlyle said the claim of racial bias in jury selection is just one of about a dozen issues on which they have appealed Chamberlin’s conviction. Reeves ruled only on the jury selection process. Carlyle said they will re-visit the other issues if they are not successful with the 5th Circuit appeal on racial bias.

Chamberlin’s appeal went to the U.S. District Court after her conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Forty-seven Mississippi inmates are awaiting death sentences, several just a few legal proceedings away from their lethal injections being carried out. The youngest is 29 and the oldest 68. Twenty are white, 26 are black and one of Asian descent.

Mississippi’s most recent executions, at the State Penitentiary at Parchman, occurred in 2012 when six prisoners were administered lethal injections in separate events between Feb. 8 and June 20.