Death Row at Unit 29, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Men on death row are housed here, but the state's only woman serving on death row is housed at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Credit: Mississippi Department of Corrections

The only woman serving on Mississippi’s death row can challenge her sentence and conviction in state court, a federal judge has ruled. 

Lisa Jo Chamberlin was convicted of two counts of capital murder in 2006 and is at housed at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. 

But she is not the only incarcerated person on death row appealing her case. 

Of the 36 people sentenced to death, all are in various stages of having their cases reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court or in federal court, said Krissy Nobile, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction, a state agency. 

Post-conviction litigation begins after a person is convicted and sentenced and the Mississippi Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court denies a defendant’s direct appeal. Post-conviction cases challenge aspects of a criminal trial, conviction judgment or a sentence. 

“Post-conviction isn’t just a one stop shot and you get one chance,” said Nobile, whose office has requested to represent Chamberlin and represents all other death row incarcerated people  

Examples of post-conviction claims can include ineffective counsel, a change in law, new evidence that can excuse fault or guilt, the application of mitigation that may have convinced a jury to vote for a sentence less than death or constitutional violations. 

Relief for a death row inmate can come in the form of a new trial and resentencing for a lesser sentence, like life in prison without the possibility of parole, Nobile said. 

On June 1, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi issued a stay in Chamberlin’s case, allowing her to return to state court to litigate unexhausted claims in her case. 

He cited a 2013 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling recognizing a state right to effective-post conviction legal representation in death penalty cases, even after an initial post-conviction petition was denied. 

“Here, Chamberlin has a valid excuse for not pursuing this claim earlier: it did not exist until after her habeas case had been filed,” Reeves wrote. “The claim is not clearly meritless.” 

In 2006, Chamberlin was found guilty of murder with her then-boyfriend Roger Gillett for killing two people they lived with in Hattiesburg. 

The victims, Linda Heintzelman and her boyfriend Vernon Hulett, were put into a freezer and taken to Kansas, where Chamberlin and Gillett were arrested.

Chamberlin appealed her conviction and sentence, but in 2008 the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the Forrest County Circuit Court’s decision and denied her petition for post-conviction relief, according to court records. 

In 2011, Chamberlin asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to hear her case and in 2015 Reeves ordered a new trial. Attorneys argued there was a constitutional issue in her case known as a Batson violation, which is the improper dismissal of potential members of a jury based on race, according to court records. 

A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Reeves’ ruling, but in 2018 the full court reversed its decision, court records state. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Chamberlin’s case in 2019, putting it back in the hands of the federal district court in Mississippi. 

Earlier this year, Chamberlin’s attorney filed an intent to return the case to state court.

In state court, Chamberlin will be represented by the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel. 

Nobile and several of her colleagues sent a request to the Mississippi Supreme Court to represent Chamberlin. Once appointed, the team will begin to review Chamberlin’s case files, investigate and find evidence for claims that haven’t been raised in her case. 

The office did not represent Chamberlin in her initial post-conviction case because it represented her co-defendant Gillett. Nobile said the office does not represent co-defendants to avoid conflict of interest. 

Mississippi is one of 27 death penalty states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit providing analysis and information about capital punishment.  

Here, capital murder can result in a death sentence. The decision to seek the death penalty is made by a district attorney and the sentence must be unanimously decided by a jury. 

A killing is considered capital murder under several instances, including a murder committed during another crime such as a rape, arson or robbery; the death of a child as a result of battery or abuse and the murder of a firefighter or “peace officer” such as a police officer, sheriff or other law enforcement officer. 

State law also lists treason and aircraft piracy as charges that carry the death penalty. 

Previously, homicide/murder was a charge that carried the death penalty. Several of the incarcerated people on death row whose crimes were committed before 1998 have this charge. 

Over the years, there have been changes to death penalty law in the state, including not executing juveniles, those found to be mentally incompetent and people who committed non-murder crimes. 

The average age of people currently on death row is 48.8, according to a review of Mississippi Department of Corrections data. Richard Jordan, who is 76, is the oldest and Terry Pitchford, 36, is the youngest on death row. 

People have been on death row for an average of 20.1 years, according to MDOC data. Although Jordan has been on and off death row before, MDOC cites him as the person who been there longest for 45 years because the agency counts from the date he was first sentenced. Alberto Garcia is the newest on death row and has been there for just under two years. 

About 58% of death row inmates are Black and about 36% are white, according to MDOC data. The remaining percent are Hispanic or Asian – about 3% for each racial group. 

Some have severe mental illness, Nobile said. Many of them had difficult life circumstances and were poor at the time their crimes were committed, she said. 

Because the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel is tasked by law to represent people serving on death row until their death, Nobile said she and her staff have built years-long relationships with them through visits to Parchman. 

“Justice has to be at the forefront,” Nobile said about the office’s work. “We’re looking back on how a case turned out and if there is new evidence that could be looked at in the future.” 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.