Miss. high court throws out Winston Co. woman’s manslaughter conviction

Published 10:54 pm Friday, July 21, 2006

The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for Emma Hannah on grounds there were questions about whether she knew what she was doing when she pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2002 in Winston County.

The state Court of Appeals had upheld Hannah’s conviction last year.

Hannah was charged in the June 8, 2001, slaying of Winifred Hannah by throwing a pot of boiling water on him. He died about 21 days later.

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She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A trial judge dismissed her post conviction petition in 2004. Inmates use post conviction petitions to argue that new evidence has surfaced with which they might win a new trial.

Hannah had claimed that police would have eliminated her as suspect if there had been a thorough investigation.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, said there were questions about whether Hannah’s plea was voluntary and whether Hannah’s attorney could have done a better job.

Presiding Justice Kay Cobb, writing for the court’s majority, said Hannah was twice questioned by the trial judge about her desire to plead guilty.

Cobb said the trial judge stopped the initial questioning after Hannah said she didn’t commit the crime. After a break in the proceedings, the trial judge asked Hannah a second time about her plea and Hannah said she killed Winnifred Hannah, according to the court record.

“Hannah’s level of awareness and understanding during the plea colloquy is unclear,” Cobb wrote. “Under the facts gleaned from the entire record, we conclude that there is some question whether the plea following the second colloquy was knowing, intelligent and voluntary.”

Joining Cobb in ordering a new trial for Hannah were Justices Oliver Diaz Jr., James E. Graves Jr., Jess Dickinson and Michael Randolph.

Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr., in a dissent joined by three other justices, said the court record shows Hannah was thoroughly questioned about the manslaughter charge, her plea and about the rights she was giving up by pleading guilty.

“It is clear that Hannah’s plea was voluntary. Her counsel likely as trial strategy advised her to plead guilty because of the wealth of evidence against Hannah and her lack of a clear, static alternative scenario.

“In my view, the advice of Hannah’s counsel did not fall outside the realm of acceptable professional advice given the evidence amassed against her,” Smith wrote.

Joining Smith in the dissent were Presiding Justice Bill Waller Jr., Justice Chuck Easley and George C. Carlson Jr.