Those convicted of murder are not eligible for parole in Mississippi, but court rulings paved the way for a man previously sentenced to death to receive parole and be scheduled for release.
Frederick Bell had been serving a sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for the May 1991 shooting of 21-year-old Robert “Bert” Bell (no relation) during a robbery in Grenada County.
Capital murder typically carries the death penalty. But after years of appeals and filing for post-conviction relief, Frederick Bell was resentenced to life without parole and then life with the possibility of parole. He was approved for release by the state Parole Board in August and is set to leave prison as early as Monday.
Family members of Bert Bell have been attending Parole Board meetings since 2015 and thought Frederick Bell wouldn’t be paroled, but last month Gene Bell, Bert’s younger brother, received a letter saying Frederick Bell’s parole had been approved, according to a copy shared with Mississippi Today.
The family wants the Parole Board to reconsider. More than 50 community members from Grenada County and beyond have signed a petition addressed to Gov. Tate Reeves asking him to reverse the board’s decision. State law enforcement groups and residents have written to Parole Board Chair Jeffery Belk and board members. Several lawmakers have also spoken about Frederick Bell’s parole.
“We should never parole a violent criminal,” Gene Bell wrote in a Thursday email to Mississippi Today. “That is not the way to reduce the population in the penal system and is certainly not the way to protect every law-abiding citizen in regards to our safety.”
Belk wrote to Gene Bell about the board’s decision to parole Frederick Bell, saying he understood it would be a disappointment to the family.
In a previous interview with Mississippi Today, Belk said when considering parole, the board looks at a range of available information, including input from victims and their families and the person’s record while incarcerated, to make a decision.
“However, in our opinion Bell has been rehabilitated and at this point we feel that parole supervision will be more beneficial than further incarceration,” Belk’s letter states.
Belk and a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about Bell’s parole.
On May 6, 1991, then-19-year-old Frederick Bell and a group of men went into Sparks Stop ‘N Go in Grenada County where 21-year-old Bert Bell was working. They bought chips and beer and went outside to eat, according to court records.
Frederick Bell wanted to go to Memphis and said he needed money so he decided to rob the store, according to court records. He went back inside with one of the group members, Anthony Doss. Gunshots rang out from the store, and Bert Bell was shot nine times and killed.
Later that day, Frederick Bell and three of the men from the group drove to Memphis, where Bell shot and killed another man, 20-year-old Tommy White.
In 1993, the Grenada County Circuit Court convicted Frederick Bell and Doss for the killing of Bert Bell. A jury found Frederick Bell killed the store clerk, contemplated using lethal force during the robbery and intended to kill Bert Bell, which factored into its decision to impose the death penalty, according to court records.
Before the 1993 trial, Frederick Bell and another man from the group, Frank Coffey, were charged for the Memphis shooting and pleaded guilty, according to court records.
For years Frederick Bell sought to appeal his Mississippi conviction, including an unsuccessful direct appeal with the state Supreme Court in 1998, multiple filings for post-conviction relief and denied requests for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his case.
Gene Bell said it is a shame for anyone convicted of a violent crime to continue to appeal because victims and their families don’t get an opportunity to appeal any decisions made by the courts.
In 2011, the state Supreme Court found Frederick Bell was entitled to an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he was mentally disabled. This was based on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found it was cruel and unusual to execute mentally disabled people.
Doctors at the Mississippi State Hospital evaluated Frederick Bell and determined he was mentally disabled.
As a result, in 2013 the Grenada County Circuit Court sentenced Bell to life without parole. He appealed, and in 2015 the State Supreme Court voted 5-4 in his favor. On June 5, 2015, the Grenada County Circuit Court sentenced him to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
Gene Bell said his family was devastated to learn his brother’s killer was eligible for parole. He began attending Parole Board hearings in 2015 to speak against Frederick Bell’s release.
“Do I like doing this? No,” Gene Bell said. “But it’s my duty. It’s my duty for my family and for the law abiding citizens of the great state of Mississippi.”
The family’s main concern is about public safety. Gene Bell said people shouldn’t have to fear the system has failed them by allowing someone who has committed violent crimes out of prison.
A person granted parole will serve the remainder of their sentence under supervision. They are required to report to a parole officer and follow rules laid out by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Gene Bell said the current Parole Board did not indicate it would parole Frederick Bell.
Rather, the board told him it would extend the time between Frederick Bell’s hearings from one year to up to five years. This would be done out of consideration for Bert Bell’s family.
“(T)his was too brutal of a case for me and family to have to endure such a horrible date in history this often,” Gene Bell said.
He doesn’t understand what changed this summer between the July meeting that felt positive and the August one when the board granted Frederick Bell parole.
The Rev. C.J. Rhodes of Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson is President of Clergy for Prison Reform, which is focused on criminal justice issues including parole.
Parole can be complicated and should be viewed on a case-by-case basis, he said. It should also consider those affected, including victims, their families, the incarcerated people and their families and community.
The Christian faith recognizes redemption and how incarcerated people can be rehabilitated and demonstrate that after prison.
“This becomes a test case if we want to apply that particular theology,” Rhodes said.
The group wants to reimagine corrections in a way that doesn’t emphasize imprisoning people, he said. Rhodes said there is an opportunity to make victims and victimizers whole again, and redemption and rehabilitation shouldn’t be lost in conversation about criminal justice reform.
Monday is Frederick Bell’s expected release date. Multiple efforts to reach an attorney for Frederick Bell were not successful.
Sen. Angela Burks Hill (R-Picayune) said in an interview with Supertalk Radio that his release from prison is likely to be delayed because the Parole Board did not follow a state law that requires public notification in a newspaper in the county where the crime was committed.
Gene Bell remembers his brother as a happy-go lucky person who enjoyed the outdoors and loved his family and friends.
“We miss Bert tremendously,” Gene Bell said. “We often wonder what he would have become in life. What would his brother- and sister- in-law think about him and what would his nieces and nephews think about him? How would we all interact as family?”