Trial And Sentencing
Jackson County Adult Detention Center, Pre-trial: January 2000 – October 2001
During the nearly two years Chris was in the pre-trial section of the Jackson County Adult Detention Center, he met several dozen men who were charged with murder. Every one of them had been charged with crimes far more heinous in comparison.
Pre-trial detainees with serious charges usually had to wait one to three years in jail if they wanted a jury trial. Court hearings for capital offenses are constantly rescheduled by lawyers who aren’t ready and prosecutors who prefer putting off the trial in hopes of negotiating a plea bargain – or they want to extend the media coverage of high-profile cases to benefit the careers of the DA’s office, law enforcement officials… even the judges.
The jailers transport groups of prisoners to the courthouse in vans, escorting them to the jury panel seats in the relevant court rooms. Individual cases are called and discussed in front of the entire group of prisoners.
The detainee group learns the charges of their fellow prisoners, including details the newspapers didn’t publish or weren’t boasted about in the cell blocks. These hearings with a room full of people – family, friends, media reporters, lawyers and the men you are incarcerated with – had the potential to embarrass criminals profoundly. The details disclosed could make a prisoner the joke of the day or put him on the receiving end of a nasty beating before being the joke of the day… with a “pumpkin head”.
Murder charges are common in Mississippi. Hundreds of young men, mostly teenagers – kids! – have been arrested for capital murder and jailed in the Jackson County Adult Detention Center. Some of them plea to lesser offenses, such as murder or manslaughter, to avoid a trial that would most likely end with a conviction and one of only two possible sentences: life without parole… or the death penalty.
The thought of death row, execution, or at best spending the rest of your life in prison, is enough to make most agree to plead guilty to murder or manslaughter.
The majority of capital murder cases are not dropped to manslaughter, which carries two to twenty years. However, the cases that do get dropped can really shock you. Ninety percent of the time, the difference between murder cases that are dropped to lesser charges and those that become life sentences are one has a paid lawyer and the other a public defender. The fortunate prisoner gets another chance at life even if sentenced to the twenty-year maximum; any job (combined with good overall conduct) qualifies a convict for trustee status and “good time”, which can cut the sentence in half. From a possible death sentence, and certain life without parole, to freedom in ten years.
Ten years is a long time, for ANY crime.
What Chris experienced after two years of court hearings, his own and as a reluctant member of the audience for numerous others, was that there is no equal justice whatsoever in Mississippi.
Capital murders that had confessions, murder weapons and witnesses were published in the media as terrible acts, selling the story for great profit while shining a spotlight on the DA and advancing the careers of law enforcement officers.
The media influences citizens, but when citizens become jurors and sit in a courtroom while attorneys perform, their opinion can be changed. Lawyers capable of proving an unjust charge do so by breaking the Guilty Spell cast on juries by prosecutors. Those lawyers are well paid in private practices and firms, not living on a salary in an overwhelmed public defender’s office.
Chris witnessed several murder cases – some were guys he was living in a cellblock with – get reduced to manslaughter. The same judge that later sentenced Chris to life, gave out eight, twelve, and twenty year sentences for crimes far more heinous than what Chris was charged with. Every one of those cases were represented by a paid, private attorney.
Prisoners with financial resources get a reduced charge by paying tens of thousands of dollars to an attorney with a Name, connections and the charming, compelling, courtroom performer skills that convinces juries of innocence… and convinces prosecutors not to compete in a trial. The acts allegedly committed by these extremely fortuitous people are neatly cleaned up by the D.A., usually with a press statement that sells the masses an “innocent until proven guilty” or “this proves the system works” type of spiel.
And people believe it and don’t question it.
An astounding number of young men are convicted of murder every year in Jackson County alone. About a third get the maximum penalty. Others take plea bargains. And the winners of the Murder Charge Reduction Lottery? They get that “second chance” presidents, governors, and representatives of the legislature like to talk about… and not act on.
After witnessing countless men get reduced sentences for robbing and killing people, Chris just knew his capital murder charge would be reduced to manslaughter, too. Since everyone else got their murder charge dropped, he would, too, right? It was well known that law enforcement will charge you with the worst possible offense so the D.A. can negotiate from an advantage. Surely, they would see the details of the case, that it was a fight between kids, and offer a manslaughter deal. He’d be out in a few years for sure.
In 2000, the public defender interviewed Chris one time. Then quit. The assistant PD, Brice Kerr, took over as the lead attorney and failed to follow through on several key issues he promised that were vital to build a defense for Chris’ trial. The DA had an expert witness, a pathologist named Dr. McGarry, whose testimony would be a deciding factor in Chris’ guilt or innocence. Kerr knew this, and made plans with Chris to secure their own expert witness to review the autopsy and give the court a second opinion. Kerr had the authority to retain the best pathologists around. He didn’t.
The investigator for the public defender’s office interviewed Chris several months before the trial. He was to locate witnesses that knew Chris, JP and Dong, and could testify to the violent nature of the 211. Chris told him the names of several reliable people. He spoke to one, Braden Shirley. Kerr would never call him to the stand.
In July, 2001, Chris filed a handwritten motion to remove Brice Kerr as counsel. There was no reply from the court. Chris filed a second motion and followed up with a letter to the judge regarding Kerr’s dereliction of duties. This, also, was not heard by the court.
A couple weeks before the trial, Chris’ aunt attempted to hire an attorney after realizing how negligent Kerr was. The attorney, Richard Conant, spoke to the judge and requested a continuance to prepare for trial. Judge Harkey denied the request, saying Chris had a lawyer and a trial date. Chris’ trial hadn’t even begun and the court was already showing bias.
"There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has." – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (1964)
Trial And Sentencing – Pascagoula Circuit Court: October 2001
The trial lasted three days.
Day 1 was jury selection. A special circumstance called voir dire was granted, which increased the juror pool to three hundred citizens. The judge, Public Defender and Assistant District Attorney selected twelve jurors and one alternate after screening the first few dozen.
Prosecution presented their case on Day 2. Their expert witness, a pathologist, Dr. Paul McGarry, testified first. Dr. McGarry’s opinion based on the autopsy was accurate until he speculated on whether Dong was still alive when the bag was placed on his head. He stated the crushing of the larynx was the cause of death, and was inconclusive about the bag.
Jonathan “Red” Hill testified next. He was allowed to observe all prior proceedings from the court audience before being called to the stand. Red knew Chris and J.P. well, and, like them, was supplied by Dong and the 211 (Initially, Red was the primary suspect. On the evening of the incident, Dong delivered a large package of cocaine to Red prior to driving to J.P.’s house for a second delivery that resulted in the fight. Members of the 211 told investigators they suspected it was Red, who fled to Florida. The FBI Task Force found Red and brought him back to Mississippi for questioning. Red implicated Chris and J.P. by telling investigators of the second delivery that night. He was released. Police then detained Chris and J.P. for questioning. They were released and later arrested after J.P. was questioned by the FBI Task Force).
Red testified that Dong was “a peaceful, gentle” person and that Chris was manipulative and capable of violence. Red and Chris had been friends for years. He knew Chris was not a violent person, and often prevented violence at parties they hosted. Red also knew Dong was anything but gentle or peaceful; he was the leader of the 211, a Vietnamese drug gang, and had a record that included cutting a teacher, punching another, and was known for doing drive by shootings and using violence to collect debts (Chris’ defense witness, Braden Shirley, was present to testify about Dong’s violent nature. Dong told Braden he had “a .45 with Chris’ name on it”. The officers of the court would not allow Braden to observe the trial prior to his testimony. He had to wait in a conference room). Red was angry at Chris for a dispute they got into after investigators told Chris and J.P Red implicated them in Dong’s disappearance. He retaliated by helping prosecution convict Chris.
The prosecution’s chief witness, J.P. May, was up next. He was offered a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying: manslaughter, which has a two year minimum that the prosecutors told him he would get (later, Judge Harkey rejected the D.A’s recommendation and gave him the maximum penalty, twenty years).
J.P. was willing to say anything to go home. He made two statements at the time of his arrest, hours apart from each other. Several key issues in the first statement were contradicted in the second (months before Chris’ trial, J.P. had a hearing to suppress the statements. He told the court he was coerced and threatened by arresting officers, and told the truth about what happened the night of the incident. But the judge denied his attempt to suppress the contradictory statements. He had to stick with that story to get the manslaughter deal). At one point during his testimony, the public defender got him to admit that he didn’t always tell the truth, but didn’t stress it for more elaboration. The prosecution team was far more skilled at questioning witnesses and quickly made the jury forget J.P.’s admission to lying. He cried on the stand, ashamed for many reasons.
On Day 3, Lieutenant Investigator Mick Sears testified that Chris gave a statement admitting to killing Dong. After his attest, Chris was questioned by the FBI Task Force and Ocean Springs Police. He denied any knowledge of involvement. The FBI turned the case over to the Sheriff’s Department, who transported Chris to the ADC.
The following morning, Sears transported Chris to the main Sheriff’s substation in Pascagoula for fingerprinting and paperwork. They had a mostly one sided conversation where Sears told Chris his theory of events. Chris said that was possible, it could have happened the way Sears outlined. There was no camera, audio recorder, written statement – not even another officer present. Yet Sears wrote a report claiming Chris admitted the theory was true.
Kim Nguyen was Dong’s girlfriend. She testified that she was with Dong before he disappeared; Dong never took her on deliveries or collections. This fact had no impact on the trial. The real reason the D.A. had her there was to gain sympathy from the jury. She was pregnant with Dong’s child when he was killed. This inflammed some jurors, and made others cry.
Chris had to take the stand. According to the public defender, his best chance was to let the jury hear the truth in his own words. It was a case of self-defense. Sears’ theory was actually very accurate, despite his inaccurate claim that Chris made a statement to him during processing. A Lieutenant Investigator’s word will be believed no matter what Chris said to the contrary. So Chris told the court what happened.
He was 20 years old, scared to death after seeing prosecution run circles around his attorneys, and knew he was going to prison. But he didn’t think he would be convicted of something he didn’t do. And he didn’t murder anyone, no matter how much the prosecutors wanted everyone to believe it. He failed to convince. And during closing arguments the prosecutors twisted the facts of the autopsy to make the killing look like intentional.
After four hours of deliberation, Chris was found guilty of murder and immediately sentenced to life.
Continue reading below to review the court documents or head on over to the next page to learn more about the appeals…
“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists . . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.” – Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Ret.), during his tenure as president of the American Bar Association (August 1976)
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