The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office has determined that the killing of a mentally ill man by a Forrest County sheriff’s deputy was justified, according to a two-sentence press release Monday morning. 

A team of Forrest County deputies arrived at the home of Maurice McCarty Hughes’s sister on the evening of July 14 with one responsibility: to pick up Hughes to take him to receive mental health care. Instead, a deputy shot and killed him after Hughes struck him with a hammer. 

“Police job is to serve and protect,” said Cassandra Teal, who witnessed her brother’s shooting. “Not come and kill.”

Teal said an official from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which handles the investigation each time a law enforcement officer kills someone in the state, came to see the family on Friday to tell them that the attorney general had found Hughes’ shooting was justified. 

Hughes, who had just turned 45, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder about 25 years ago. Over the years, he sometimes stopped taking his medication, and a family member would go through the process to have him civilly committed to get treatment at a state hospital. 

Civil commitment is a legal process in which a court forces a mentally ill person into treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are committed for psychiatric reasons each year. About 5,000 Mississippians were committed in fiscal year 2021. 

Mississippi law requires sheriff’s deputies to pick up civil commitment patients and transport them to the state hospital or a holding location until a bed becomes available. That practice is common around the country, but in some places – like Tucson, Arizona – the officers responsible for commitment pickups receive specialized training and solely serve people with mental illness. 

Nationally, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to access psychiatric services through involuntary commitment. 

Hughes had been committed about 16 times before, relatives said, always without incident. If he did not want to go with the deputies, they might tase him, but no one ever pulled a gun. 

Mississippi Today asked the attorney general’s office how staff reached the conclusion that the shooting was justified. 

“We considered all available evidence, the MBI investigative report, and applicable law to determine that there was no criminal conduct on the part of the officer involved,” said Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Attorney General Lynn Fitch.

Teal said that when she began the civil commitment proceedings in late June, she filled out paperwork explaining her brother’s state of mind and listed the items he had that could be used as weapons, including the hammer. 

All four deputies had received crisis intervention team (CIT) training, designed to equip police to understand mental illness and help people in crisis instead of using force. Nearly 700 law enforcement officers in Mississippi have participated in the training since mid-2018, according to the Department of Mental Health. But national studies have found no evidence that the training reduces the odds that an officer uses force against a mentally ill person. 

None of the deputies were wearing body cameras, so there is no video footage of the shooting.

Hughes’ death marks the first time the attorney general’s office reviewed a fatal shooting by law enforcement under a new law that took effect July 1. 

Previously, local district attorneys decided whether to present such cases to the grand jury and seek charges. Indictments of officers who kill people while on duty are rare in Mississippi and around the country. Officers are legally permitted to use lethal force if they fear for their lives, and the Supreme Court has held that judges and juries must defer to the perspective of the officer on the scene. 

Though it happened rarely in Mississippi, prosecutors could choose to release large amounts of information – including complete investigative files – after the grand jury declined to indict an officer. It’s not clear how much evidence the attorney general’s office will release in these cases.

Teal, an eyewitness to the shooting, said MBI officers never interviewed her. Instead, they asked her to provide a written statement shortly after she watched a deputy kill her brother. She was still in shock and later thought of other details she wanted to share. An officer told her he would call her to set up an interview, but he never did, she said. 

“I learned from that day, never believe nothing the police tell you,” Teal said. 

Mississippi Today has filed requests for records with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the Attorney General’s Office to review the evidence collected during the investigation and understand how the attorney general’s office came to its conclusion. 

The family has hired an attorney to represent them in a civil action “to seek justice” for their loved one, Teal said.

James Hughes, Maurice McCarty Hughes’ father, said he was not surprised by the attorney general’s conclusion.

“Black lives don’t matter,” he said, but then paused.

“They kill a Black man – I imagine if it would have been a white man they would have said the same thing. It ain’t about race. It don’t make no difference about color. They are just going to stick together on this stuff.”

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Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.