Woman on death row wins appeal to challenge case

The only woman on Mississippi death row can challenge her sentence and sentence in state court, a federal judge ruled.

Lisa Jo Chamberlin was convicted of two counts of capital murder in 2006 and is housed at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.

But she is not the only person incarcerated on death row to appeal her case.

Of the 36 people sentenced to death, all are in various stages of having their cases reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court or in federal court, said Krissy Nobile, director of the Office of Post-Conviction Capital, an agency state.

Post-conviction litigation begins after a person is convicted and sentenced and either the Mississippi Supreme Court or the US Supreme Court denies the defendant’s direct appeal. Post-conviction cases challenge aspects of a criminal trial, conviction, or sentence.

“Post-conviction is not just a one-time shot and you have a shot,” said Nobile, whose office has applied to represent Chamberlin and represents everyone else incarcerated on death row.

Examples of post-conviction claims may include ineffective counsel, a change in the law, new evidence that may excuse fault or guilt, the application of mitigating circumstances that may have convinced a jury to vote for a lesser sentence death or constitutional violations.

Relief for a death row inmate can come in the form of a new trial and a new sentence for a lesser sentence, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole, Nobile said.

On June 1, US District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi issued a stay in Chamberlin’s case, allowing him to return to state court to litigate unexhausted claims in his case.

He cited a 2013 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the state’s right to effective post-conviction legal representation in death penalty cases, even after an initial post-conviction petition is denied.

“Here, Chamberlin has a valid excuse for not pursuing this claim earlier: It did not exist until after his habeas case was filed,” Reeves wrote. “The claim is not clearly unfounded.”

In 2006, Chamberlin was convicted of murder with her then-boyfriend Roger Gillett for killing two people they lived with in Hattiesburg.

The victims, Linda Heintzelman and her boyfriend Vernon Hulett, were put in a freezer and taken to Kansas, where Chamberlin and Gillett were arrested.

Chamberlin appealed his conviction and sentence, but in 2008 the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the Forrest County Circuit Court’s decision and denied his request for post-conviction relief, according to court records.

In 2011, Chamberlin petitioned the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to hear his case, and in 2015 Reeves ordered a new trial. The attorneys argued there was a constitutional issue in his case known as Batson rape, which is the wrongful firing of potential jurors based on race, according to court records.

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Reeves’ ruling, but in 2018 the full court reversed its decision, according to court records. The US Supreme Court refused to review Chamberlin’s case in 2019, returning it to the federal district court in Mississippi.

Earlier this year, Chamberlin’s attorney filed an attempt to return the case to state court.

In state court, Chamberlin will be represented by the Capital Post-Conviction Attorney’s Office.

Nobile and several of his colleagues petitioned the Mississippi Supreme Court to represent Chamberlin. Once appointed, the team will begin reviewing Chamberlin’s case files, investigating and finding evidence of allegations that have not been raised in his case.

The office did not represent Chamberlin in his initial post-conviction case because he represented his co-defendant Gillett. Nobile said the office does not represent co-defendants to avoid conflicts of interest.

Mississippi is one of 27 states with the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization that provides analysis and information on capital punishment.

Here, capital murder can result in a death sentence. The decision to seek the death penalty is made by a district attorney and the sentence must be decided unanimously by a jury.

A murder is considered capital murder in several cases, including a murder committed during another crime, such as rape, arson, or robbery; the death of a child as a result of assault or abuse and the murder of a firefighter or “peace officer” such as a police officer, sheriff, or other law enforcement officer.

State law also lists treason and aircraft piracy as charges that carry the death penalty.

Previously, manslaughter/murder was a charge that carried the death penalty. Several of the people deprived of liberty on death row whose crimes were committed before 1998 have this position.

Over the years, there have been changes to the death penalty law in the state, including not executing juveniles, those found to be mentally incompetent, and people who have committed crimes other than murder.

The median age of people currently on death row is 48.8, according to a review of data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Richard Jordan, 76, is the oldest and Terry Pitchford, 36, is the youngest on death row.

Inmates have been on death row for an average of 20.1 years, according to MDOC data. Jordan has been there the longest for 45 years and Alberto Garcia is the newest on death row and has been there for just under two years.

About 58% of those on death row are black and about 36% are white, according to MDOC data. The remaining percentage are Hispanic or Asian, about 3% for each racial group.

Some have serious mental illness, Nobile said. Many of them had difficult life circumstances and were poor at the time they committed their crimes, he said.

Because the Office of the Post-Capital Sentencing Attorney is tasked by law to represent people on death row until their death, Nobile said she and her staff have built years of relationships with them through of visits to Parchman.

“Justice has to be at the forefront,” Nobile said of the office’s work. “We are looking at how a case turned out and if there is new evidence that could be looked at in the future.”

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