Family members, lawmakers fought his release. Today the convicted killer of two walked free.

Published 4:48 pm Saturday, May 20, 2023

Double murderer James Williams III walked free Tuesday from a Mississippi prison, despite pleas from family members and dozens of lawmakers to keep him behind bars.

The state Parole Board voted to release Williams, who was convicted in 2005 of fatally shooting his father, James Jr., and stepmother, Cindy Lassiter Mangum. He was 17 at the time of the killings in south Jackson.

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Mangum’s son, Zeno, expressed disappointment at Williams’ release over the family’s objections. “Prayerfully,” he said, “I hope he has been reformed, and he’s not a problem for anybody else.”

About 15 state senators opposed the release of Williams and so did more than 30 state representatives, including House Speaker Philip Gunn, said state Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune.

“In the last two years, the Parole Board has released 78 murderers and eight rapists,” Hill said. “We’re supposed to be locking up the ones we’re afraid of.”

Parole Board Chairman Jeffrey Belk told Mississippi Today that he was limited in what he could share about Williams’ case, “but I can tell you all facts and information was considered and he received the majority number of votes required to be paroled.” He said the parole received no objection from the family or others.

Williams’ lawyer, Jake Howard, called his client “an exceptional candidate for parole.  He has served over 20 years in jail and prison — more than half his life — for the tragic crimes he committed on December 28, 2002, when he was just 17 years old. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to better himself and atone for his crimes.”

Originally given two life without parole sentences, Williams, now 38, qualified for parole after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that juveniles should be eligible for parole.

A May 1 letter signed by 27 state representatives asked the Parole Board to rescind its decision as it has done in other cases.

“The very nature of his crimes shows not only his will to carry out the murders, but the premeditation stage of planning the poison first, then moving on to shooting them and finally the stage of dismemberment and disposal of their bodies to avoid detection,” they wrote. “No crime of passion can be claimed, no momentary lapse of control, and no black scenarios.”

Howard pointed to Williams’ achievements as proof of change: a GED and a bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry as well as completing numerous other educational and rehabilitation programs.

“James has devoted himself to serving God and his fellow inmates,” Howard said. “He has been affiliated with MDOC’s faith-based programs since 2008, began tutoring students in 2012, became a field minister in 2018, and served as the Minister of Music for Parchman’s Koinonia Church from 2020 until 2022.”

At that time, Williams voluntarily agreed to transfer to the Marshall County Correctional Facility as a missionary and field minister, served as pastor for the Living Waters Baptist Church, taught a “Fundamentals of the Faith” class and provided counseling services to other inmates, Howard said.

Williams has received glowing letters of support for his release from chaplains, the seminary director and the Parole Board’s own psychologist as well as dozens of others, Howard said. Upon release, Williams hopes to serve as a chaplain at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.

Lawmakers complaining about Williams’ release are vowing to bring reform. “You either want to get violent crime under control, or you don’t,” Hill said.

State Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, wonders why Williams served only a decade for each murder while she had to fight for two years to win the release of a local man dying of lung cancer, who had received two life sentences on drug charges. Months after his release, he died.

“My God, we have a murderer being released versus someone on his deathbed,” she said. “That’s a problem for me.”

Asked about Williams serving as a pastor now, she replied,  “I pray that nothing bad happens, but we’re going to be watching.”

She said she believes those chairing the Parole Board should have law enforcement experience, because “prisoners are very cunning and will make you believe anything.”

Belk, who was appointed by Gov. Tate Reeves, worked for 24 years as a project procurement manager for Chevron. He has defended his lack of experience in law enforcement or corrections.

“I feel my corporate background helps bring structure to the facilitation and structuring meetings, working through legal and audit issues, and building a team environment,” he said. “Having a board with diverse backgrounds allows myself and others to bring a unique perspective to the table when making tough decisions.”