Miss. high court reviews death penalty case

Published 11:18 pm Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A trial judge erred in failing to dismiss the lawyers for condemned inmate William Wilson and that decision eliminated the chance of a plea deal that would have spared Wilson’s life, his attorneys argued Tuesday to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Wilson pleaded guilty to capital murder in the 2005 slaying of a 2-year-old girl, Mallory Conlee. Wilson, of Mooreville, was sentenced to death in 2007 in Lee County.

At the time of the girl’s death, authorities said they had received a report that a motorcycle had fallen on the child’s head. An autopsy showed bruises all over her body and third-degree burns to her feet.

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Authorities said the bruises were in several stages of healing, indicating that they had occurred over a time.

The court record showed Wilson agreed to plead guilty in March 2007 in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. However, when questioned by Circuit Judge Thomas J. Gardner III, Wilson said he thought his attorneys could have done a better job.

“I don’t feel like I could receive a fair trial. That’s why I took this plea,” Wilson told Gardner, according to the court record.

Wilson claimed he hadn’t communicated or seen much of his court-appointed attorneys between his 2005 arrest and his plea hearing.

Gardner halted the hearing.

According to the court record, prosecutors withdrew the plea deal, the case continued with Wilson and his same attorneys and Wilson pleaded guilty in May 2005. With no plea bargain, Gardner sentenced Wilson to death.

On Tuesday, Andre de Gruy with the state Office of Capital Defense Counsel told the Supreme Court that Gardner should have replaced Wilson’s attorneys instead of letting the case go on with the same ones.

De Gruy said the judge’s action coupled with the deficient performance by Wilson’s lawyers led to the death sentence when prosecutors declined to reach another plea deal.

“The difference between the two (the March and May court appearances) is life and death,” de Gruy said.

Assistant Attorney General Patrick McNamara said there was nothing in the court record that spoke to ineffectiveness of Wilson’s lawyers until after a plea agreement was reached.

McNamara said Wilson’s lawyers worked with prosecutors on the plea agreement and Wilson’s exchange with the judge showed they had explained it fully to him. He said the ineffectiveness issue only came up when the judge asked Wilson if he was satisfied with what had been done for him.

McNamara said he could not guess why Wilson took a chance to continue with a guilty plea at a second plea hearing and leave the sentencing to the judge when the death sentence remained a possibility.