JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a 2014 death penalty conviction, saying prosecutors sandbagged the defendant by introducing last-minute evidence, using jailhouse informants to elicit information when the suspect's lawyer should have represented him and throwing away evidence that could have helped the defense.
The court ruled 9-0 that Justin Blakeney of Laurel should get a new murder trial in the 2010 death of Victoria Viner, the daughter of his then-girlfriend.
"Because Blakeney was denied an opportunity to present a complete defense, because testimony and evidence from witnesses working as state agents was allowed, and because of prosecutorial misconduct, we now reverse Blakeney's conviction and sentence and remand his case for a new trial on the merits," Justice Leslie King wrote for the court.
Jones County District Attorney Anthony Buckley did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The court also overturned a death penalty conviction last week because of questionable bite mark evidence.
An autopsy found the 2-year-old Victoria died of blunt force trauma to the head. Blakeney argued that she'd fallen off a stool weeks before he called paramedics to report she was ill, but a physician at a hospital reported the case as possible child abuse.
The child's mother, Lidia Viner, pleaded guilty to child neglect, was placed on probation and was later deported to Mexico.
Prosecutors relied on two informants who were promised lighter treatment in turn for information from Blakeney. He'd appealed to them for help in joining the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang. Prosecutors argued at trial that Blakeney killed the child to qualify to join the gang, but Blakeney said he'd only tried to join the gang for protection after years in jail.
King said it would have been OK if the informants had reported conversations with Blakeney but said the state went wrong when authorities cooked up a plan to use the informants as undercover agents, including one who wore a wire, to seek stronger confessions from Blakeney. King wrote that after Blakeney was indicted, state agents couldn't question him unless his lawyer was there or he waived his right to a lawyer.
The court also found that Circuit Judge Billy Joe Landrum should have given Blakeney's lawyer more time to prepare after the state introduced more evidence days before trial, including testimony of one of the informants, Randall "Satan" Smith.
"With the untimely introduction of Smith's testimony, the State's case added extremely inflammatory testimony for which the defense needed time to prepare," King wrote. "Had the defense had time to obtain impeachment evidence, it likely would have undermined Smith's testimony in favor of the defense."
Finally, the court found that Assistant District Attorney J. Ronald Parrish erred when he threw away computer and cellphone records from Blakeney and Viner instead of providing them to the defense.
"Clearly, information on Blakeney's and Viner's cellphones and computer potentially could be useful," King wrote. "A recent picture of Blakeney without swastika tattoos could have emphasized the defense's point that Blakeney had not been involved with the Aryan Brotherhood before he went to jail."