Appeals Court upholds conviction in Oktibbeha Co. murder case

Published 3:49 pm Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday rejected arguments from convicted murderer Devail Hudson that testimony in his trial about alleged gang activities turned an Oktibbeha County jury against him.

Hudson, of Starkville, was sentenced to life without parole in 2004 in Oktibbeha County.

Hudson was convicted of capital murder in the 2001 death of 77-year-old Juanita Miller. The Appeals Court upheld the conviction and sentence.

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Prosecutors said Miller was beaten, robbed and left for dead at her house, which was set on fire in six different places to cover up the beating. Miller’s husband testified at the trial that $400 to $600 was missing from their house.

Prosecutors claimed Hudson is the one who killed Miller, while other suspects were involved in other ways.

According to court records, firefighters found Miller lying on the floor with injuries to her head and other parts of her body, and called paramedics. Miller later died from her injuries.

On appeal, Hudson said the trial judge erred by allowing the jury to hear unsubstantiated claims that Hudson and the others were members of a gang.

The testimony came from Bentore Riley, who was the lookout while the others went into the Miller home. Riley testified that he got involved because he was afraid the men were in a gang and would kill him or his family.

Hudson argued that telling a jury that Hudson was in a gang without any proof prejudiced the jury against him, according to the court record.

Prosecutors said they wanted the testimony so jurors would not wonder why Riley was afraid of the men.

Appeals Judge Virginia Carlton, writing Tuesday for the court, said the statement explains why Riley acted as a lookout during the crime but later notified police about the crime.

“Riley’s inconsistent actions, without explanation, could leave the jury without a complete understanding of why Riley participated as a lookout,” Carlton wrote.

“The testimony elicited by the state was not an attempt to produce evidence of Hudson’s possible gang affiliation or to connect any such affiliation with the crime,” Carlton said.

Appeals Judge David M. Ishee, in a dissent joined by two other judges, said Riley’s testimony had nothing to do with the murder and was the only evidence prosecutors provided about alleged gangs.

“The state provided no corroborating evidence to directly link Hudson’s gang membership to the crime committed against Miller. With no such evidence linking the two, any relationship between the crime and Hudson’s gang membership was mere speculation on the part of Riley … speculation is not enough to overcome the prejudice created when a witness alleges that a defendant is a member of a gang,” Ishee said.