• Since the publication of this article, a judge of the Pearl River County Circuit Court has ruled that Cory Maye received incompetent legal representation during his sentencing phase, and has ordered a new sentencing hearing. As of September 21, 2006, Cory Maye has been removed from death row.
• On November 16, 2009, the Mississippi State Court of
Appeals granted Maye a new trial, ruling that the trial court was
wrong to turn down his request to move the trial back to
Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi.
Cory Maye had settled into a chair in front of the television and was drifting off to sleep. It was around 9 p.m. on the day after Christmas, 2001, and the 21-year-old father had put his 18-month-old daughter, Tacorriana, to bed an hour earlier. Her mother—Chenteal Longino, Maye’s girlfriend—had left for her job on the night shift at the Marshall Durbin chicken plant in Hattiesburg, more than an hour away. The three shared half of a small, bright yellow duplex on Mary Street in Prentiss, Mississippi, a depressed town of 1,000 people in Jefferson Davis County, about halfway between Jackson and the Gulf Coast.
Later, in court, Maye would testify that he awoke to a violent pounding at his front door, as if someone was trying to kick it down. Frightened, he ran to his bedroom, where Tacorriana was sleeping. He retrieved the handgun he kept in a stand by the bed, loaded it, and chambered a bullet. He got down on the floor next to the bed, where he held the gun and waited in the dark next to his little girl, hoping the noises outside would subside.
They didn’t. They got worse. The commotion moved from the front of his home to the back, closer to Maye, and just outside the door to the room where he and his daughter were lying.
“Thought someone was trying to break in on me and my child,” Maye testified.
“And how were you feeling?” an attorney asked.
“Frightened,” Maye said. “Very frightened.”
One loud, last crash finally flung the rear door wide open, nearly separating it from its hinges. Seconds later, someone kicked open the bedroom door. A figure rushed up the steep, three-step entrance to the house and entered the room. Maye fired into the darkness, squeezing the trigger three times.
Maye says the next thing he remembers is hearing someone scream, “Police! Police! You just shot an officer!” He then dropped his gun, slid it away from his body, and surrendered.
One of the three bullets had found its way around Officer Ron Jones’ bulletproof vest, pierced his abdomen, and ripped through several vital organs. Jones would die of massive internal bleeding on the way to the hospital.
The police offer a different version of the night’s events. They say they announced themselves several times upon arrival and again before each attempt to kick down the doors to the apartment. At Maye’s trial, the raiding officers also testified that someone inside the home jiggled the apartment’s front blinds when they first arrived, suggesting Maye peered out the window, meaning he should have known the men invading his home were police, not criminals.
Maye insists he didn’t hear the officers announce they were police until after he’d fired his gun. Asked by his lawyer at the trial what he’d have done if he’d known the intruders were police, he replied, “I would have let them in.”
A jury rejected this account of mistaken self-defense and sentenced Maye to death for the murder of Ron Jones. But the evidence strongly suggests Maye was telling the truth. His conviction has provoked outrage not only among left-liberals concerned about racially charged Southern justice—Maye is black and Jones was white—but among conservative supporters of the right to keep and bear arms.
Beyond the issues of race and guns, beyond even the question of Cory Maye’s guilt or innocence, the death of Ron Jones illustrates the dangers of an increasingly literal war on drugs featuring unnecessarily aggressive, militaristic tactics that regularly lead to tragedies for police officers and civilians alike. At least 40 innocent people have been killed in paramilitary-style drug raids since the early 1980s, as have at least 15 police officers. And there are at least 150 cases of “wrong door” raids, in which SWAT teams or similarly aggressive police units have raided the wrong home.
‘He Used to Cook for Me All the Time’
Cory Maye was born to Dorothy Maye Funchess on September 9, 1980, the youngest of seven children. His father is Robert Brown, a man who was absent for much of Maye’s childhood but reconnected with his son when the young man was in his late teens. Maye takes his last name from Kenneth Maye, who was married to his mother for several years and was the primary male influence during his formative years.
Maye grew up poor, though Funchess went to great lengths to keep a clean house, assigning each of her kids a series of household tasks. Cory seemed especially drawn to the kitchen. “It’s what I miss most [with] him being in prison,” Funchess says. “He used to cook for me all the time.”
According to Maye’s relatives, teachers, and previous employers, he was a good kid growing up. He had no history of violence, no bad temper, no trouble with the law. He was close to his family, shy, and reserved. His grades were average, but to help with family expenses he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and began working for his biological father’s construction and landscaping business. When he wasn’t working for Brown, Maye did some freelance landscaping and brick masonry. He was unemployed at the time of the raid: Jobs dry up when the weather turns wet, and December brings the thick of South Mississippi’s rainy season.
Maye was growing increasingly unhappy with his living arrangements at the time of the raid, and his unemployment was only part of the problem. He adored his daughter, and he and Longino had moved from nearby Monticello to Prentiss to try to make a life together. But Maye missed his home and his family, and he didn’t like the seedy neighborhood where they’d found an apartment. “He called me every day,” Funchess says. “He wanted to bring the baby and Chenteal and come home.” Maye complained about the tenant living on the other side of the building, who made a lot of noise and had people coming and going all hours of the day and night, often waking Tacorriana.
On December 23, a homesick Maye returned to Monticello. Longino immediately pleaded with him to come back to Prentiss, ultimately convincing him to stick it out until after the holidays. After the New Year, she said, they’d think about finding a new apartment, or perhaps move in with his or her parents. Maye agreed, and his mother, aunt, and siblings spent Christmas with him in Prentiss.
On the night of the raid, while Maye was dozing off in front of the TV, Officer Ron Jones was visiting the home of Prentiss City Judge Ron Kruger, presenting him with an affidavit for two search warrants, one for each apartment at the duplex. According to the affidavit, a confidential informant told Jones there was a “large stash” of marijuana in each of the duplex apartments. Though there appear to have been two warrants, it also seems clear that Jones was primarily interested in a man named Jamie Smith, who lived in the apartment opposite Maye and Longino. Smith already had drug charges pending against him from four months before. On the warrant affidavit, Jones described Smith as a “known drug dealer.” By contrast, neither Maye nor Longino was mentioned by name in any of the affidavits or warrants, and other than the alleged assertions of the confidential informant, there’s no reason to suspect that either was selling drugs.
After getting the search warrants he needed from Kruger, Jones returned to the police station and waited for the arrival of the ad hoc raid team he’d assembled. Jones usually referred drug tips to the Pearl River Narcotics Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional SWAT team that specializes in serving drug warrants. But for reasons that are still unclear—perhaps because the team wasn’t readily available over the holidays and he wanted to act quickly—Jones put together his own team, enlisting one member of the task force and one volunteer officer along with local police from Prentiss and nearby towns.
Jones and five other officers left for the Mary Street duplex, which was just a few blocks from the police station, about 11 p.m. They split into two teams. The first would take Jamie Smith’s apartment, on the north side of the duplex. The second would hit the apartment on the south side, Maye and Longino’s home, whose occupants were described in the second warrant as “person(s) unknown.” The fact that they weren’t explicitly identified in the warrant is important, because it shows that neither of them was even known to police, much less individually suspected of a crime. (Bob Evans, Maye’s current attorney, says his client never met Jones. Several officers and Judge Kruger testified at trial that they had never heard Cory Maye’s name until after the raid.) The only evidence against Maye leading police to come to his home that night was the alleged assurance from a confidential informant that there was marijuana inside his half of the duplex.
As the squad cars pulled into the gravel drive, Christmas lights flickered from Cory Maye and Chenteal Longino’s front porch. A child’s bicycle leaned against the railing. A wreath hung from the young couple’s door.
Jamie Smith gave up without a struggle. According to police, someone in Smith’s home immediately opened the door when the officers arrived, and those inside the apartment—Smith, his girlfriend Audrey Davis, and a 15-year-old boy named Jimmy—surrendered without incident. Police found marijuana in the bathroom and kitchen of Smith’s apartment, as well as scales containing crack cocaine residue. Yet as of press time, Smith has yet to be charged for any of the drugs found in his apartment nearly five years ago.
Maye, meanwhile, had no prior criminal record, and police had discovered nothing in the apartment to indicate drug dealing. They found a little more than a gram of marijuana, most of it old and ashen—at worst a misdemeanor. “Under any other circumstances, he’d have gotten a $50 ticket,” says Evans. But Maye had just killed a cop. Worse, he had killed the well-liked, widely respected son of the town’s police chief.
Maye was taken to the Forest County jail in Hattiesburg, an hour away from Prentiss. Maye and his family say he was severely beaten after the raid. The police deny the charge, but a press photo of Maye taken shortly after the raid displays a swollen, blackened eye. His family was prohibited from seeing him for more than a week—long enough for any injuries to heal. Maye’s brother told one newspaper that Maye “bled out of his ear for a week” after the raid as a result of the police beating.
Maye was held in the county jail without bond. In February 2002, a local judge sent his case to a grand jury, which a few months later indicted him for capital murder: the knowing, intentional killing of a police officer. After a trial that hinged on whether Maye had known Jones was a policeman or had mistaken him for an invading criminal, a jury deliberated for a little more than an hour before finding him guilty of murder on January 24, 2004. That same afternoon, the same jury sentenced him to death.
‘This Is Still Mississippi’
I first discovered the case of Cory Maye in December 2005, while doing research for a Cato Institute paper on the sharply increased use of paramilitary tactics in domestic policing. After reading a few local articles about the case, I grew suspicious of Maye’s conviction. I called his original attorney, Rhonda Cooper, and asked the Jefferson Davis County clerk for a copy of the search warrants. Eventually I wrote about what I’d found on my personal weblog, theagitator.com. During the next few weeks, the case began to attract attention and sympathy from around the Internet. Interestingly, the concern came from writers of all political persuasions. A Google search on Maye conducted early in my investigation returned about 30 hits. A similar search today returns 186,000.
In early March 2006, Reason sent me to Prentiss to research this article: to see the town, talk with locals, and interview Maye’s family. (Maye’s attorneys declined to let me speak to Maye himself, a decision that’s not unusual for a death penalty case still early in the appeals process.) By this time, I was more of an advocate than a dispassionate journalist. Shortly after I began writing about the case, an associate with the large D.C. law firm Covington and Burling contacted me about providing pro bono representation for Maye, as did the conservative George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr. I put both in touch with Maye’s current lawyer, Bob Evans, and both are now part of his legal team.
Prentiss is the seat of Jefferson Davis County, one of the poorest corners of the country. According to census data, the town lost about 9 percent of its population between 2000 and 2004. It has a lower mean household income, lower home values, and higher unemployment than the averages in Mississippi, a state that ranks near the bottom on most economic indicators.
At the Prentiss town center, bright green banners advertising “Historic Downtown Prentiss” flap over bare storefronts, boarded-up display windows, and mostly vacant lots. The town’s biggest employers are the hospital, the schools, and the city and county governments. The last factory in town—a Cadillac parts manufacturer called KLH Industries—left for Mexico in 1999, taking 600 jobs with it. Unemployment jumped to 25 percent. The south side of town features a few signs of life—gas stations, a florist, a tobacconist, some fast food franchises—but little beyond services and light retail.
The area’s economic woes and bleak prospects have fostered drug activity and homicide. In 2002 the county made the front page of The New York Times as part of a story about the drug trade’s move from urban to rural America. Prentiss is known in the area as a junction in the illicit drug pipeline running from New Orleans to Jackson up to Memphis. Residents note the comparatively expensive new homes that have sprung up alongside the ramshackle trailers and bedraggled flats on Mississippi Route 13 and conclude that they could only have come from drug money. “There’s nothing here” economically, one local business owner told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 2004, “but there’s lots of shiny cars.”
The county’s homicide rate in 2002 was five times the national average. Residents fear the crime, but they don’t seem to trust the cops to do much about it. When I ask what they think of the local police, most residents answer, “Corrupt.” They’re happy to talk with me, but they don’t want me quoting them by name. When I ask why, they say things like, “Murders never seem to get solved around here.”
The most striking impression I get is the pervasive, suffocating role race plays in everyday life. The fear and paranoia from black residents can be overwhelming. But even to someone generally skeptical about claims of racial discrimination (as I am), it’s utterly convincing. When people in the area talk about why they don’t trust law enforcement, you hear the same cops named over and over again. You hear about many of the same incidents, then learn that the officers involved never really stop policing; they just move from one department to another. It takes me just a few hours in Prentiss to find another woman who says she too was on the receiving end of a violent, forced-entry drug raid. Though the police didn’t find the meth lab they were looking for, they nevertheless jailed her brother for months (he couldn’t afford bond) before releasing him without explanation. The Monticello County Sheriff’s Department, where the man was jailed, claims he was bound over to circuit court for trial. But eight months later, he has yet to be charged or tried.
And it’s not just civilians who make such accusations. One black officer warns me not to trust what I hear from white cops in the area. “The badge and the gun don’t mean anything,” the officer says. “It doesn’t mean they found what they say they found.”
Mississippi has tried to make amends for its past, but some areas of the state still lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to race. Jefferson Davis County is one of them. “Jackson’s a pretty modern city,” says Andre de Gruy, the earnest, eloquent young lawyer who heads up the state’s legal aid program for death row inmates. De Gruy, a white man in his 30s, works with two other lawyers in a modest office overlooking the dig where the state’s new Supreme Court will be built. “In the northwest, you have the Memphis suburbs,” he continues. “The Gulf Coast development down around the casinos is comparatively enlightened too.” He pauses. “But just about everywhere else, this is still Mississippi.”
Another defense attorney is blunter. “We don’t lynch black people outside of Mississippi courthouses anymore,” he says. “But we still lynch them on the inside.”
“White people control this town,” one black woman tells me from her driveway. The short, thirtyish black man standing next to her nods in agreement. Neither wishes to be identified. “They run it from the police department, the hospital, and City Hall. Oh, and Prentiss Christian,” she adds. Prentiss Christian is the private, overwhelmingly white school where the town’s few residents with money send their kids. “All of them are racist,” she continues, referring to public officials and law enforcement. More than one resident tells me that during Hurricane Katrina black folks who had been waiting in line for hours to get emergency supplies were told to go home, due to the curfew. When they returned the next day, they say, the supplies were gone. It’s hard to know whether to believe the story; it seems awfully blatant. But the assumption of racial animosity behind it is unmistakable. The people who tell me the story believe it, and after a few days in Prentiss I can’t help feeling they have every reason to.
Jefferson Davis County is about 60 percent black, while Prentiss is about 70 percent white. The town’s mayor, aldermen, and police chief are white, but Jefferson Davis County Sheriff Henry McCullum is black. There is palpable tension between the two police forces. White residents generally have good things to say about the Prentiss Police Department and sneer at the sheriff’s department. Black residents generally trust the sheriff’s deputies but fear the Prentiss officers. New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield—author of the aforementioned front-page story about Prentiss—told me in a phone interview that the town’s white police officers cautioned him not to consult McCullum for the story. McCullum was a black man, they told Butterfield, and he couldn’t be trusted.
The saddest thing about Officer Ron Jones’ death is that Jones seems to have been an exception to all of this racial antagonism. Evans says Jones was “a good cop and a good guy.” Even black residents who feel nothing but ill will toward the Prentiss police speak highly of Jones. One black man recounts to me an incident in which police pulled him over for speeding, searched his car, and were preparing to take him to jail, despite the fact that they’d found nothing incriminating. Jones arrived at the scene, calmed everyone down, and told the officers to let the man go. “He was one of the good ones,” he says. Another woman summarizes the black community’s relationship with Jones by saying simply, “He was a friend.”
‘Sometimes People Do Irrational Things’
Under Mississippi law, if Maye knew or should have known that Ron Jones was a police officer before he fired his gun, he is guilty of capital murder. If there is reasonable doubt about his knowledge that Jones was a police officer, he is not guilty (although one could conceivably make a case for criminal negligence if it can be shown he should have exercised more judgment before firing).
The most obvious argument in Maye’s defense involves the simplest interpretation of events. A man with no criminal record is awakened by the sounds of someone breaking into his home. While he is lying in the dark with his daughter, the door to the bedroom flies open and someone jumps inside. Fearing for his life, the man fires in self-defense and kills the intruder.
To convict Maye, the jury had to believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a man with no criminal record, a man who had just moved out of his parents’ home to make a life with his daughter and girlfriend, a man who had only a minuscule amount of marijuana in his apartment, looked out the window to see a team of police officers was about to enter; decided to take them on, even though he had done nothing wrong; waited for them to forcibly enter his home; fired three shots, killing just one of them; and then surrendered, leaving four bullets still in his gun. When I ask District Attorney Buddy McDonald, who prosecuted Maye, why a man would go through such a series of puzzling and contradictory acts, he replies only that “sometimes people do irrational things.”
There are more troubling details in the case against Maye. To begin with, there is no record of Ron Jones’ investigation of Jamie Smith and the Mary Street duplex. Nobody knows the identity of the confidential informant who tipped Jones off. There are no written records of the informant’s past tips or his reliability, or of any surveillance or corroborating investigation Jones did to supplement the informant’s tip. Judge Kruger testified at the trial that he merely took Jones at his word and didn’t press him for details about the informant’s record or Jones’ investigation. But if the informant lied about seeing marijuana in the Maye-Longino half of the duplex, or if Jones misinterpreted what the informant said, it raises the possibility that the raid on Cory Maye’s home was illegal, in which case he had every right to defend himself under Mississippi law. The absence of Maye’s name from the warrants and his lack of a criminal record reinforce the possibility. When I ask District Attorney McDonald what happened to Jones’ records, he replies, “Any record of Jones’ investigation died with Jones.”
Jamie Smith and the girlfriend with whom he lived, Audrey Davis, are nowhere to be found. Smith has not been charged with possession of the drugs found in his apartment the night of the raid. Smith and Davis are the only adult witnesses to the raid on Maye’s apartment other than Maye and the police officers involved. It’s curious, then, that Prentiss police wouldn’t have made more of an effort to keep Smith and Davis in the area. “It’s peculiar that Smith was never asked to testify at trial and that he skipped out so easily,” Evans says. “Especially since he was the reason they went in there in the first place, and already had drug charges against him.” (One other person was present at the raid: Jimmy the 15-year-old. I was unable to track him down while I was in the area. When Rhonda Cooper interviewed him, he apparently didn’t provide much insight to corroborate either version of events.)
The evidence against Cory Maye isn’t just weak. Some of it was presented at trial in a manner that was downright misleading. The prosecution’s forensics case is one example.
Mississippi’s forensic pathology system is, in the words of one medical examiner I spoke with, “a mess.” The state has no official examiners. Instead, prosecutors solicit them from a pool of vaguely official private practitioners to perform autopsies in homicide cases. Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy on Jones, appears to be a favorite. In the words of Leroy Reddick, a respected medical examiner in Alabama, “Every prosecutor in Mississippi knows that if you don’t like the results you got from an autopsy, you can always take the body to Dr. Hayne.” Defense attorneys in the state bristle at Hayne’s name. In a case last year in Starkville, he testified that he could tell by the wounds in a corpse that there were two hands on the gun that fired the bullet, consistent with the prosecution’s theory that a man and his sister team jointly pulled the trigger. Several medical examiners have told me such a claim is preposterous.
Hayne testified at Maye’s trial that he is “board certified” in forensic pathology, but he isn’t certified by the American Board of Pathology, the only organization recognized by the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American Board of Medical Specialties as capable of certifying forensic pathologists. According to depositions from other cases, Hayne failed the American Board of Pathology exams when he left halfway through, deeming the questions “absurd.” Instead, his C.V. indicates that he’s certified by two organizations, one of which (the American Board of Forensic Pathology) isn’t recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. The other (the American Academy of Forensic Examiners) doesn’t seem to exist. Judging from his testimony in other depositions, it’s likely Hayne meant to list the American College of Forensic Examiners. According to Hayne, the group certified him through the mail based on “life experience,” with no examination at all. Several forensics experts described the American College of Forensic Examiners to me as a “pay your money, get your certification” organization. A February 2000 article in the American Bar Association Journal makes similar allegations, with one psychologist who was certified through the group saying, “Everything was negotiable—for a fee.”
Hayne’s testimony was critical in securing Maye’s conviction. Hayne said he could tell from the damage to Jones’ body the trajectory the bullet took as it entered the officer. Based on that trajectory, he speculated that Maye was standing when he shot Jones, not lying on the floor, as Maye testified. Hayne’s testimony seriously damaged Maye’s credibility with the jury.
But according to a post-trial review by an actual, board-certified forensics expert whom Maye’s new legal team hired, it would be impossible to project the bullet’s trajectory based on the tissue damage in Jones’ corpse, because Jones might have been crouching, rolling, or prone when he was hit. Furthermore, the hole created in the bedroom door frame by one of the three bullets Maye fired that night clearly slants upward, from about shoulder height. The prosecution ignored a bullet hole in a fixed object that was consistent with Maye’s account of the raid and instead pushed Hayne’s testimony about the supposed trajectory of a bullet that struck a moving object.
Hayne did not answer my requests for an interview.
‘I’m Sure She Did What She Could’
At Maye’s first court appearance, Justice Court Judge Jerry Dyess appointed Bob Evans to represent him. Evans, 56, has a private practice in Monticello, but at the time he was also the longtime public defender for both Jefferson Davis County and the town of Prentiss. The son of a Baptist minister, Evans is an avuncular fellow, brimming with charm and Southern aphorisms. A tall stocky man in his 50s, Evans sports a balding head and a goatee. He wears loafers and keeps a pre-tied necktie handy so he can slip it on when he’s late for the courthouse. Evans is unabashedly liberal, though with unmistakable Southern accents. While he has an office full of hunting trophies and a drawer full of guns, he’ll give you an earful about the shortcomings of President Bush with little provocation. He’s also apparently pretty formidable at trial. “I’m a little superstitious,” he says, “so I don’t keep track. But I’ve won a hell of a lot more than I’ve lost.”
But Robert Brown recoiled at the thought of putting his son’s fate in the hands of a public defender. So he scraped together what little money the family had and hired Rhonda Cooper, a black criminal defense attorney in Jackson. Maye’s family says Cooper convinced them she was qualified, to the point of asserting death penalty experience she didn’t have. Cory’s case was in fact her first capital trial.
Andre de Gruy, the head of Mississippi’s death row legal aid program, says Brown’s decision to go with Cooper wasn’t out of the ordinary. Blacks in the state often don’t trust public defenders, particularly white ones. “They sometimes see us as just another cog in a system that’s stacked against them,” he says. “It can be difficult to win them over sometimes, to convince them that we’re really on their side.”
Understandable as Brown’s decision might have been, it likely sealed Maye’s conviction. Cooper’s inexperience was obvious at the trial. She embraced conspiracy theories that, while perhaps plausible, had no place in her client’s legal defense. (She floated the idea, for example, that the warrant for Maye’s apartment was composed after the raid.) Meanwhile, she neglected some basic obligations of an attorney in a homicide case, such as interviewing the police officers immediately after the raid to get their version of events on record early. She was often unprepared. In the two years between the raid and Maye’s capital trial, Cooper met with Maye just three times. During the death penalty phase of the trial, she inexplicably had no instructions for the jury, telling the judge she’d failed to prepare them because she “didn’t think the case would get this far.”
De Gruy, who knows Cooper, says she should have known better than to take the case. “Rhonda did what she could, and I’m sure her heart was in the right place,” he says. “But she was in way over her head with that case. When you hang that shingle in front of your office, you have a responsibility to take cases you’re qualified for. Rhonda wasn’t ready for a death penalty trial.”
Cooper initially cooperated with my efforts to learn about the Maye case. When it became necessary to inquire about her performance at trial, however, she stopped returning my phone calls.
Cooper’s first mistake was her most perplexing and probably most costly. Soon after taking Maye’s case, she filed a change of venue motion to move the case from Jefferson Davis County to Lamar County. Jefferson Davis County is 57 percent black; Lamar County is 85 percent white. Lamar is also richer (its median income is $37,628, while Jefferson Davis’ is $21,834), and more conservative (it voted 4 to 1 for Bush in 2004, while Jefferson Davis favored Kerry by a slight margin).
The move made no sense. “I imagine the prosecution was doing cartwheels on their way to the courthouse to answer that motion,” Evans says. The prosecutors had no objection, of course. Cooper soon realized her mistake and attempted to move the venue back to Jefferson Davis County. It was too late. The judge ruled that Maye had forfeited his right to be tried there. Instead, he moved the trial to a third locale, Marion County. It wasn’t much of a compromise. Marion is also wealthier, whiter (67 percent), and far more conservative than Jefferson Davis.
In an area where race and class figure so prominently in public and private life, Cooper’s mistake was devastating. “The best the prosecution would have gotten in Jefferson Davis County is a hung jury,” Evans says. “There’s just no way a majority-black jury would have come back with death with those facts.” (The jury that convicted Maye consisted of 10 whites and two blacks.)
Cooper also made a colossal mistake with respect to the gun Maye used the night of the raid. The gun had been reported stolen several months earlier, from a town about 100 miles away. Prosecutors concede they have no reason to think Maye stole it, and Maye himself says he got the gun from a friend and used it for hunting and self-defense. Evans explains that in rural Mississippi, guns change hands like fishing tackle. There’s no registration requirement and no duty to investigate whether a gun has been reported stolen upon receiving it. In other words, Maye didn’t break any laws by keeping the gun in his home. When the prosecution tried to admit the fact that the gun had been reported stolen into evidence, the trial judge declined, determining the gun’s stolen status to be prejudicial to Maye and irrelevant to the case. Inexplicably, during her questioning of Maye, Cooper broached the subject of the gun, opening the door for the prosecution to question Maye about its origins. Maye’s credibility with the jury took another blow.
Cory’s aunts, brother, and family friends chuckle nervously at the mention of Cooper’s name. Making her best effort at diplomacy, Dorothy Funchess says she doesn’t much care for Cooper and didn’t from the start. She says Cooper was arrogant and never returned her phone calls. “Of course, I didn’t have much say in the matter,” she tells me. Then she looks at Robert Brown. Shortly after his son’s death sentence, Brown was in a car accident that left him with severe speech and motor impairment. As if afraid to kick the man while he’s down, she cuts herself off. “I’m sure she did what she could,” Funchess says. “But I didn’t care for her.”
‘You Invite All Sorts of Problems’
The highly aggressive raid that killed Jones and put Maye on death row is not at all unusual. The use of paramilitary tactics to serve drug warrants is increasingly common in America. Television shows such as A&E’s Dallas SWAT and Court TV’s Texas SWAT reflect a trend toward the use of heavily armed, heavy-handed raid teams for routine drug policing, even for crimes as benign as simple possession of marijuana.
Former Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates is credited with creating the SWAT concept back in 1966. Gates was inspired by the way police in Delano, California, had trained a special unit of snipers, riot police, and crowd control officers to put down the farm worker uprisings led by Cesar Chavez. SWAT teams quickly carved out a niche in American pop culture after Gates’ pet project faced televised encounters with the Black Panthers in 1969 and the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. By the mid-’70s there was a SWAT TV drama whose theme song entered the Top 40.
Even as SWAT teams gained popularity in the 1970s, they were still used sparingly, largely limited to emergency situations such as hostage takings, prison breaks, and bank robberies. That all changed in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration and a willing Congress ratcheted up the war on drugs.
Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University and a widely cited expert on the militarization of U.S. police departments, has conducted extensive surveys on the use of SWAT teams dating back to the early 1980s. According to Kraska, the number of SWAT call-outs jumped from about 3,000 per year in the early 1980s to more than 40,000 per year in the early 2000s. The vast majority of that increase has been for drug policing.
Stocked with surplus Pentagon equipment that Congress has made available for drug enforcement, police departments across the country have formed SWAT teams at an alarming clip, even in absurdly small towns where violent crime is unheard of. Mt. Orab, Ohio—population: 2,700—has its own SWAT team. Unicoi County, Tennessee, has 17,700 people, and it hasn’t had a reported murder in six years. Its SWAT team recently acquired an armored personnel vehicle.
In even smaller towns and counties where budgets don’t allow the extravagance of a local SWAT team, officials share resources to create regional SWAT teams, such as the Prentiss-area Pearl River Basin Narcotics Task Force. Officials often cite the threat of terrorism, school shootings, hostage situations, or other emergencies when justifying their local team, but inevitably they’re used primarily to serve drug warrants. The dramatic rise in the number and use of SWAT teams has been coupled with a continued reliance on confidential informants—shady, often unreliable figures who offer tips to police in exchange for money, lenient treatment in their own criminal cases, or the elimination of competing drug dealers.
“Informants are an important tool in police work,” says Peter Christ, a retired police captain with some 20 years of narcotics experience. Christ also co-founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of ex-cops opposed to the drug war. “But when you use them to investigate consensual crimes, you invite all sorts of problems. You tell a suspect, ‘You’re facing 20 to life unless you help us out.’ Common sense says that’s more motivation to make something up than a sound way of obtaining reliable information.”
With so many deployments using such violent, confrontational tactics based on often flimsy information, it’s not hard to see how tragic mistakes might happen. And they do. The death of Ron Jones is just one of dozens of unnecessary deaths that overly aggressive drug searches have produced since the mid-’80s. The list of fatalities from botched drug raids includes not only police officers such as Jones but bystanders, wrongly targeted innocents, and harmless, nonviolent drug users.
In 2000 drug cops in Modesto, California, accidentally shot 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda in the back of the head at point-blank range during a botched raid on the boy’s home. In 2003 police in New York City raided the home of 57-year-old city worker Alberta Spruill based on a bad tip from an informant. The terrified Spruill had a heart attack and died at the scene. Last year Baltimore County police shot and killed Cheryl Lynn Noel, a churchgoing wife and mother, during a no-knock raid on her home after finding some marijuana seeds while sifting through the family’s trash.
There are dozens more examples. And a botched raid needn’t end in death to do harm. It’s hard to get a firm grip on just how often it happens—police tend to be reluctant to track their mistakes, and victims can be squeamish about coming forward—but a 20-year review of press accounts, court cases, and Kraska’s research suggests that each year there are at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “wrong door” raids. And even when everything goes right, it’s overkill to use what is essentially an urban warfare unit to apprehend a nonviolent drug suspect.
Criminal charges against police officers who accidentally kill innocent people in these raids are rare. Prosecutors almost always determine that the violent, confrontational nature of the raids and the split-second decisions made while conducting them demand that police be given a great deal of discretion. Yet it’s the policy of using volatile forced-entry raids to serve routine drug warrants that creates those circumstances in the first place.
Worse, prosecutors are much less inclined to take circumstances into account when it comes to pressing charges against civilians who make similar mistakes. When civilians who are innocent or who have no history of violence defend their homes during a mistaken raid, they have about a one in two chance of facing criminal charges if a policeman is killed or injured. When convicted, they’ve received sentences ranging from probation to life in prison to, in Maye’s case, the death penalty.
It’s a remarkable double standard. The reason these raids are often conducted late at night or very early in the morning is to catch suspects while they’re sleeping and least capable of processing what’s going on around them. Raids are often preceded by the deployment of flash-bang grenades, devices designed to confuse everyone in the vicinity. While narcotics officers have (or at least are supposed to have) extensive training in how to act during a raid, suspects don’t, and officers have the advantage of surprise. Yet prosecutors readily forgive mistaken police shootings of innocent civilians and unarmed drug suspects while expecting the people on the receiving end of late-night raids to show exemplary composure, judgment, and control in determining whether the attackers in their homes are cops or criminals.
The raid on Cory Maye’s apartment wasn’t exactly like the usual paramilitary assault. Most notably, it was conducted not by a trained and seasoned SWAT team but by a small group of mostly untrained officers. Jones himself had little experience in warrant service and in fact was taking classes in narcotics policing at the time of the raid. But in many other respects, the operation had the elements of a typical botched drug raid, including a questionable lead from a confidential informant with little follow-up investigation, a rubber-stamp warrant approval by a local judge, unnecessarily violent and confrontational “dynamic entry” tactics, and the use of such tactics against a home with a child inside.
‘If We Don’t Take a Stand…’
After Maye was sentenced to death, his family fired Cooper and asked Evans to return to the case and handle Cory’s appeal. Evans agreed.
In December 2005, as Evans was preparing Maye’s appeal, he received a phone call from Prentiss Mayor Charlie Dumas, who is close to Officer Ron Jones’ family. Dumas told Evans that several of the town’s aldermen had expressed concern about his decision to handle Maye’s appeal. Although representing an indigent defendant on appeal was Evans’ job as the town’s public defender, Dumas told Evans he could lose that job if he continued to act as Maye’s attorney. Evans ignored the threat.
Six weeks later, in January 2006, Dumas called Evans with the news that Prentiss had fired him as its public defender. Evans says Dumas explicitly cited his representation of Maye as the reason for his termination. “I have officially been Prentiss public defender since February 1995, and unofficially for several years prior,” Evans says. “During that time there hasn’t been a single official complaint communicated to me about my performance.”
Dumas told me in a phone interview that his conversations with Evans were private, and that I should ask the town’s aldermen why they fired him. Sylvia Ward, the only alderman to return my calls, said she wasn’t allowed to give the reason, and suggested I get a copy of the minutes from the meeting. The minutes only note the motion to fire Evans, which was passed unanimously. They offer no reason for the motion.
As of this writing, Maye is awaiting a hearing at which the trial judge will rule on his defense team’s motions for a directed “not guilty” verdict or a new trial. The hearing will likely take place in the fall. If Maye is not successful there, he will get a direct appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court and, if that also fails, begin his federal appeals process.
Hope for a pardon or clemency seems dim. Aides to Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, have indicated both publicly and privately that Barbour doesn’t believe in pardons or clemency, even for people he thinks are innocent. Apparently he doesn’t even bother to read pardon petitions. Of course, there’s a chance that someone else will occupy the governor’s mansion by the time Maye nears an execution date.
The brief filed by Maye’s new legal team, which includes examinations and investigations done by defense-hired experts from outside of Mississippi, casts substantial doubt on Maye’s conviction. Still, it appears Maye’s best hope for relief lies in the federal courts. De Gruy, who has experience with the Mississippi Supreme Court, is pessimistic about Maye’s chances there.
The tragedy of Ron Jones’ death will only be compounded if the state of Mississippi executes Cory Maye. But an appropriate response to this case would go beyond exonerating Maye to recognize that the raid on his house wasn’t an anomaly. From the role of informants to the rise of paramilitary tactics to the lack of judicial and prosecutorial oversight, drug policing has spiraled out of control. It’s absurd that conventional wisdom says it’s not only appropriate but necessary to conduct midnight raids on drug suspects with no history of violent behavior. Unless that attitude changes, there will be more tragedies like this one.
As Maye put it in a letter to one of his Internet supporters, “We as citizens sit back and say, ‘Well, this could never happen to me.’.…But it’s happened before…and if we don’t take a stand, it’s gonna continue to happen to others.”