Death row inmate’s appeal before Miss. high court

Published 1:38 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A post-conviction petition from death row inmate Thomas E. Loden Jr. is among dozens of cases before the Mississippi Supreme Court during its November-December term.

A trial judge in Itawamba County turned down Loden’s petition in 2008.

Loden, a former Marine recruiter, was sentenced to death in 2001 in Itawamba County for killing 16-year-old Leesa Gray. He was also sentenced to 30 years on kidnapping and rape counts.

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In a post-conviction petition, an inmate argues he has found new evidence, or a possible constitutional issue, that could persuade a court to order a new trial.

Gray disappeared June 22, 2000, while on her way home from work as a waitress at her family’s restaurant in the Dorsey community. She was found dead of strangulation the next day in Loden’s van, according to court documents.

Gray was last seen driving out of the restaurant parking lot. Relatives found her car hours later, her purse still inside, hazard lights flashing.

In 2007, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected Loden’s claims he relied on faulty advice from his attorney when he pleaded guilty to capital murder and was unexpectedly sentenced to death.

Prosecutors said the court record showed Circuit Judge Thomas J. Gardner III repeatedly asked Loden whether he understood no appeal was available from a guilty plea and that every time Loden answered that he understood.

The Mississippi court held because Loden pleaded guilty, the validity of that plea can’t be appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Loden’s appeal in 2008.

Other cases before the Supreme Court include:

— Fernando Parker’s appeal of his murder conviction and life sentence handed down in Coahoma County in 2008. Parker was convicted as part of a shooting in 2004 that left one Coahoma Community College student dead and his brother injured.

— James McIntyre’s appeal of his disbarment. A complaint tribunal found in 2008 that McIntyre mixed personal and business funds with funds of his clients.

Lawyers generally keep their clients’ funds in lawyer trust accounts, separate from their business accounts.

The tribunal concluded McIntyre took funds from seven clients from 2001 through 2004. McIntyre said some funds were commingled but said none of his clients “lost a penny.”

— Maurice Pruitt’s appeal of his 2008 manslaughter conviction and 20-year sentence in Jones County. Pruitt was convicted in the 2007 shooting death of David McMillan outside the American Legion Hut in Laurel.

— A judicial watchdog agency’s recommendation of a public reprimand and suspension for Jefferson Davis County Justice Court Judge Johnny C. Hartzog. The Commission on Judicial Performance alleged Hartzog failed to recuse himself in a case where he had learned some facts outside a judicial proceeding.

The commission also alleged Hartzog used his office to advance the private interests of one of the parties in the case and let his social relationship with one of the parties influence his judgment.