Miss. legislators push for attempted murder law

Published 1:49 am Sunday, March 6, 2011

British clocks chime in Donnie Register’s antique shop in Jackson as he reflects on what hasn’t changed since he was shot there during a burglary in 2007.

Register still has a bullet lodged in his neck after raising his left hand and deflecting it with his wedding band.

“You know, it’s beyond ridiculous that a person can do anything they want to you,” Register said. “Shoot you, stab you, paralyze you, whatever. And as long as you don’t die, the worst thing they can charge you with is aggravated assault. How ridiculous is that?”

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Mississippi is one of the few states where an attempted murder charge is not in the law. Prosecutors generally rely on aggravated assault, which carries a lesser penalty than attempted murder would under a bill currently being considered by the Legislature.

The bill creates a new crime of attempted murder with a punishment of 20 years to life imprisonment, as opposed to the current 20-year maximum for aggravated assault. Republican Rep. Bill Denny of Jackson, the bill’s sponsor, said it would prevent would-be killers from receiving lighter sentences simply because the victim lives.

Denny pointed to the attack on Martez Smith, a University of Southern Mississippi football player who was paralyzed from the waist down during a shooting last fall in Hattiesburg.

“The guy’s possibly going to plead down under aggravated assault,” Denny said. “So he can walk, but this young man will never walk again.”

An amended version of Denny’s bill passed the Senate unanimously on Friday and goes back to the House.

Legislation creating an attempted murder charge has passed the House three previous years before dying in the Senate, Denny said. He said he has introduced it every year for at least nine years. Denny said new language vetted by leading state prosecutors is the key this year.

Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, explained the bill before Senate approval, saying it “creates what most of you probably think we already have” and what most other states do have — an attempted murder law.

“Basically, the difference is it’s an enhanced penalty,” Fillingane said. “It’s 20 years to life, whereas aggravated assault is up to 20 years.”

Although Fillingane and Denny say the language has been endorsed by prosecutors, the House and Senate must still agree on the final version. An amendment by Fillingane struck a significant portion of the bill after House changes gave district attorneys fewer options in court.

Denny pledged to work out the differences with the Senate.

“I think what made it difficult this year was there was particular language put in this bill that made sure it didn’t step on or step around the aggravated assault section,” Denny said.

The two chambers must file a final version of the bill by March 28 and pass it by April 1.

“The public just assumed that we did have that charge, but when something happens they’re just appalled,” Denny said.

The bill is House Bill 1340.