A New Trial for Cory Maye

Mississippi's Court of Appeals affirms a right to a local jury.

Last week the Mississippi Court of Appeals granted a new trial (PDF) to Cory Maye, a 29-year old man serving a life sentence for the murder of Prentiss, Mississippi police officer Ron Jones. Maye, who had no prior criminal record, says he was sleeping in his home when Jones and a makeshift drug raid team kicked down his door in the middle of the night on December 26, 2001. Maye claims he thought the police were criminal intruders and feared for his life and that of his daughter, 18-month old Ta'Corianna, who was asleep on the bed in the room where the shooting occurred. Police found a small amount of mostly ashen marijuana in the apartment. (For more, read my October 2007 Reason feature on Maye's case, or watch Reason.tv's documentary about Maye's story.)

Maye was eventually convicted of capital murder for the intentional killing of a police officer. He was sentenced to death the same day. When I first began writing about the case on my personal blog in late 2005, it attracted the attention of Abe Pafford, an associate at the large D.C.-based law firm Covington & Burling. Pafford, who has a daughter about the same age as Ta’Corianna, says he empathized with Maye after thinking about what he would have done if put in the same situation. A team from Covington joined local public defender Bob Evans (who was not Maye's attorney at trial) in early 2006, bringing aboard their own team of investigators and forensic experts. In the fall of that year, Mississippi Circuit Judge Michael Eubanks threw out Maye's death sentence, citing his inadequate defense counsel during the death penalty portion of the trial. Prosecutors agreed not to seek a new sentencing hearing, which resulted in Maye being re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Maye's new defense team then presented a long brief (PDF) outlining a multitude of problems with Maye's trial and conviction. Last week’s appeals court ruling, while certainly welcome news for Maye and his defense team, granted Maye a new trial only on the issue of venue, argued by then-Covington attorney Ben Vernia, now in his own practice. It considered 12 other issues, and ignored altogether the two issues that took up over half of the argument in Maye's appellate brief: namely, that the warrant to search Maye's apartment was obtained fraudulently, and that given the controlling Mississippi case law, there was insufficient evidence to support Maye's conviction.

I'll have more on those issues in a future column. But the issue of venue is why the court granted Maye a new trial, and it's worth considering in detail here.

Shortly after Maye's arrest in 2001, his family sought out the services of Rhonda Cooper, a private attorney in Jackson. Cooper had no prior death penalty experience, though Maye's family says she told them she did. Cooper made a number of critical mistakes during Maye's trial, but her first and perhaps most devastating one was to immediately ask for a change of venue. That might seem like a smart move in a case where a black man stands accused of killing a white cop (who also happened to be the son of the town's police chief), but a closer look at the demographics of southern Mississippi shows why it was actually in Maye's interest to be tried in Jefferson Davis County, where the raid took place.

Jefferson Davis County is 58 percent black. Lamar County, Cooper's initial venue request, is 85 percent white. Lamar County is also more politically conservative. Unsurprisingly, the prosecution didn't object and Cooper’s request was granted. Bob Evans, the attorney that Maye's family hired after his conviction, quipped, "I imagine the prosecution was doing cartwheels on their way to the courthouse," after Cooper's motion. Cooper soon realized her mistake, and asked that the trial be moved back to Jefferson Davis County. This time, however, the prosecution did object. District Attorney Claiborne "Buddy" McDonald would later argue in a post-trial hearing that the state feared Maye couldn't get a fair trial in Jefferson Davis County, a show of compassion that rang hollow for Maye’s new attorney Pafford, who noted that it came from the same man who was trying to have Maye executed.

Judge Eubanks eventually moved the trial to a third county, Marion County, which is where Maye was convicted. Like Lamar County, Marion County is whiter and more conservative than Jefferson Davis County. Maye's jury was comprised of 10 whites and two blacks.

The Mississippi State Constitution guarantees the right to a trial in the county where the alleged crime took place. The prosecution argued that Maye waived that right when he initially asked that the trial be moved. The Court of Appeals ruled last week that the right still applies even if the defendant initially gives it up, so long as the defendant isn't using a change of venue request to delay or obstruct the trial. Maye asked that the venue be switched back two months before his scheduled trial. Eubanks, the court ruled, should have granted Maye's request to move the trial back to Jefferson Davis County.

It seems counterintuitive that a defendant would actually want to be tried in the county where his alleged crime took place, particularly a defendant accused of murdering a cop. But the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed every Mississippian’s right to a jury local to where the crime was committed, at least, if that's what they want. There's good reason that right is in the state's constitution, even beyond the raw demographic data. Maye's case illustrates why.

The region of Mississippi where all of this happened is still largely segregated. Rural areas are overwhelmingly black, towns and small cities are mostly white. Racial animus not only persists, it's pervasive, often suffocatingly so. In Jefferson Davis County, black people live in fear of the mostly white police department in Prentiss, the county seat. Nearly every black person I've spoken to there has a story of police abuse, whether it happened to them or someone they know. White people, meanwhile, speak derisively of the mostly black county sheriff's department. Rumors circulate among white residents about Jefferson Davis County Sheriff Henry McCullum abetting drug pushers.

The informant in Maye's case is a local named Randy Gentry. Gentry, who had been used in other drug cases, is an unapologetic bigot, known in and around Prentiss as such. Yet the officers who used him, including Officer Ron Jones, routinely vouched for Gentry's trustworthiness and reliability in obtaining search warrants based on his sworn statements.

I described the area's racial tension in my 2006 article on Maye's case for Reason:

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.”

Maye's case boils down to his credibility and the credibility of the police officers who conducted the raid. They claim to have announced themselves. Maye says he didn't hear them. If he did hear them, he's guilty of murder. If they didn't announce themselves, or if he didn't hear that announcement, he’s at worst guilty of manslaughter and may well well be completely innocent, having merely defended his home from a violent intrusion.

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  • Xeones||

    In expectation of Radley eventually pulling the rug out from under all of us and then making with the nutkicks, i'm not getting my hopes up.

  • Plumber Stoke||

    I agree

  • ||

    Is it just me, or does it seem really bad for the government, any government, to appeal a ruling that benefits a defendant? I'm talking about any case. It seems like double jeopardy when the state appeals a ruling, even a procedural one.

  • MuDdPhuDd||

    Balko for the win!

  • ||

    Does anyone know the procedure for serving search warrants?

    If the cops knocked on his door and said "We're the police, we have a search warrant." I don't think there would have been a problem.

    If the cops kicked in his door in the middle of the night, I could see why adrenaline levels would be high.

    What determines whether a few cops in uniform show up and ask for your cooperation in broad daylight versus a SWAT team conducting an assault on your property?

  • ||

    Since I'm too lazy to make a flowchart.

    1. Is the subject black, latino, or any other non-white race?
    2. Does the subject legally own a gun?
    3. Does the search warrant involve those scary, scary drugs?
    4. Does the sheriff/police department want to play with their shiny new toys?
    5. Are the SWAT guys bored and want to play soldier?

    If the answer to any of those is yes, then they'll use the SWAT team.

    If the answer to all of them is no... well, reading Radley's articles from the last few years leads me to believe they'll probably still use the SWAT team (see: Culosi, Salvatore)

  • mr simple||

    To be fair, in many parts of the country Italians are still not considered white.

  • ||

    Balko, you're a rockstar.

  • Warty||

    You should probably not get pulled over in Mississippi, Radley.

  • Jason||

    I'm not sure Radley should even enter Mississippi...

  • ||

    Why would anyone enter Mississippi?

  • ||

    What determines whether a few cops in uniform show up and ask for your cooperation in broad daylight versus a SWAT team conducting an assault on your property?

    Is the SWAT team busy? If not, do they want to pick up some extra bucks serving warrants?

  • LarryA||

    "Is there a SWAT team?" pretty much covers it. I used to make exceptions if the warrant was being served on political figures like mayors, but they're at risk now too.

  • Federale||

    Another case of drugs clouding the vision and reason of Reason. His attorney asked for the change of venue. Case closed. Should have gone for the welfare attorney instead of the free-market lawyer.

    The other thing is that blacks always say white cops are liars and corrupt, that is what they say to get off.

    So, the question really goes down to did they knock-and-announce. Well, if he was asleep, then he does not know if they did.

    At Reason, you have to have a little more disernment.

  • Warty||

    For a magazine called reason, they sure are republicans who smoke pot, huh?

  • Visited the MS||

    It's more like blacks say most cops are liars and corrupt PERIOD, regardless of color. I'm white and I think they're right, especially in that state. The Navy sent me to school in Meridian, MS for three months and it was the first time I actually thought to myself that I was glad to be an average looking white guy 'cause the local pigs scared the hell out of me.

  • ||

    A couple of comments from a Lamar Co, MS resident and past Prentiss resident: There is no Monticello County in Mississippi. You need to improve your research. There is a Monticello, MS which is in Lawrence County. Additionally, the Jeff Davis County and Prentiss areas are without a doubt the center of the drug industry in Mississippi. The Sherriff's office is known and admitted by nearly all, black and white, to have been corrupted by drug money. The police department is about what you'd expect from a town of a couple of thousand residents - largely incompetent. There have been rumors that the local chief of police and the sherriff of the time in question were having a feud and somehow Mr. Maye got caught in the middle. I have no way of knowing if that is accurate, though.

    It sounds to me that Mr. Maye got incompetent counsel and deserves a new trial. I agree with the posters that the central question is what he heard as the police came to his house, but there is no way to know the answer objectively. In our system of justice, the benefit of doubt, especially in capital cases, should go to the defendant.

  • ||

    If I even get a speeding ticket in Mississippi, I want Radley Balko as my defense counsel and subsequently, as chief coroner and pathologist at my autopsy.

  • IceTrey||

    If you get a speeding ticket in Mississippi your car will be confiscated and you'll be taken to jail where your body will be mysteriously found hanging by the neck in your cell covered in bruises.

  • ||

    Sure the prosecutors can re-instate the death penalty. And if the jury has, say 4 or more, blacks on it, they will have chosen to have guaranteed an acquital or a hung jury. 'Cause most of the jury will be thinking 'there but for the fickle finger of fate, stand I.'

    I'm a lawyer so I will never get to sit on a jury, but if I were called and asked if I would follow the judge's instructions as to the law, I would not be lying when I would asnwer yes. But I would lie if they asked me if I would convict purely on the facts being such that the judge said that meant he was guilty. Because I could not do that and still uphold the oath.
    William Penn was acquited by a jury which refused to convict unjustly when the judge (Hanging Judge Jeffries iirc) declared that they 'had to'.
    Jury nullification, although still in hiding, is still alive.
    Heh Radley, how about offering some 'legal history' columns to the local rag down there, about that odd bit of English/US history. Prosecutors can't complain if *everyone* in the county knows that 'it ain't jury nullification, if you don't call it that!'.

  • Jenn||

    It's foolish that this all hangs on whether he heard the knock-and-announce. Criminals or robbers could easily announce themselves as police before breaking down the door. The fact that the police announced themselves should make no difference. A violent intrusion is a violent intrusion; this is particularly unjustified in light of the minor drug offense at issue.

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