Miss. Supreme Court sets execution date for Bishop

Published 4:23 pm Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dale Leo Bishop is set to be executed July 23 for beating a man to death with a claw hammer in 1998, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The date was set one day after Bishop’s attorneys claimed that his last lawyer — the former director of a state agency that represents death row inmates — sabotaged the case by suppressing evidence and firing investigators who worked on the inmate’s appeal.

The Supreme Court’s order setting the execution date mentioned in a footnote that an appeal motion is pending before the court.

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“I’m a little surprised they would go ahead and set an execution date under those circumstances, but I’m not disappointed,” said Jim Craig, one of Bishop’s attorneys. “I think it’s clear they still intend to consider the successive petition we filed.”

In the petition filed Monday, Craig and Glen S. Swartzfager, the new director of the state Office of Post Conviction Counsel, claim Swartzfager’s predecessor withheld evidence, including information that Bishop is mentally ill.

“The Director simply discarded this proof and substituted his own unsubstantiated frivolous allegations,” Swartzfager wrote in court papers. “All the while, Bishop had no idea his lead lawyer was sabotaging his main chance to escape execution.”

State lawmakers created the Office of Post Conviction Counsel in 2000 to help indigent death row inmates appeal their convictions. Swartzfager was appointed by the state Supreme Court on June 10, replacing Robert “Bob” Ryan. It’s not clear why Ryan left the agency.

Ryan has not responded to several phone messages. A woman who answered the phone at his home Tuesday identified herself as Ryan’s wife and said: “I can just say he’s not going to have a comment at this particular time.”

Bishop’s attorneys also say Ryan withheld evidence of mental disabilities in the first appeal of Earl Wesley Berry, who was executed May 21.

To support their claims that Ryan failed his death row clients, Bishop’s attorneys submitted dozens of documents, including sworn affidavits from Ryan and several of his former employees.

In a 2005 affidavit, Ryan described the Office of Post Conviction Counsel as understaffed and lacking sufficient funds to hire experts to review cases. At one point in 2003, Ryan said he was the only person working on 21 death row cases, according to the affidavit.

Three of those cases were filed on the same day in 2003, and Ryan said he did not even have to time to review the complete transcripts before filing the appeals.

“I did the best I could on all of these cases (and all of my cases) but I was boxed in with no money to contract private counsel, no staff available to relieve the burden due to the crush of the numerous cases assigned to the office, and not enough hours in the days to even remotely begin to do a complete and thorough job on all of these cases,” Ryan wrote in the affidavit.

Affidavits from several of Ryan’s former employees describe him as an overbearing boss who assigned an inexperienced investigator to oversee the cases.

Tomika Harris, a lead investigator at the agency, acknowledged in an affidavit in 2005 that she had little experience in “mitigation investigations” and that the case load was burdensome.

“We did the best we could under the circumstances, but we simply had too many cases to work and could not (during this time from November 2002 to May 2003) do an adequate job on these cases,” Harris wrote in her affidavit.

Bishop, 34, was sentenced to death in the fatal beating of Marcus Gentry of Fulton. An accomplice, Jessie Johnson, also was convicted in the case and sentenced to life in prison. Bishop’s attorneys say Johnson was the actual killer.

Bishop’s attorneys want the Mississippi court to hear an appeal based on the arguments of ineffective representation as well as claims that he is mentally disabled and that Mississippi’s method of execution is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court refused June 23 to hear an appeal based on claims of ineffectual counsel and the trial judge’s refusal to move the case due to pretrial publicity.