DELAYED JUSTICE: Less than 2% of Jackson homicide arrests since May 2018 have gone to trial
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - It’s a night that will be etched in Kayla Gilmore’s mind forever.
She and her boyfriend, Aaron Cory Hancock, had been forced out of their car at gunpoint.
As the two sat outside an abandoned building on Bailey Avenue, Hancock looked at her and told her everything would be OK.
Moments later, Hancock had been fatally shot and Gilmore was using his hat to stop the bleeding. The 27-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene.
That was in July 2018. Nearly three years later, Gino Washington, the man accused of robbing the couple and killing Hancock, has yet to stand trial.
Like so many victims of violent crime in Jackson, Gilmore is still waiting for justice.
“I understand they have so many cases,” she said. “It does upset me, but I understand.”
A WLBT analysis shows that 119 people in the capital city were arrested for murder between May 1, 2018, and May 1, 2021.
However, just two of those individuals have stood trial, while about a quarter of those charged saw their bonds significantly reduced once their cases were bound over to the county and circuit court.
Yaqwae Newell, Glen Wiggins, and Emmanuel Jaynes, for instance, were denied bond in Jackson Municipal Court, only to have their bonds reduced to $150,000 apiece in Hinds County Court.
The three are charged with capital murder in connection with a Jan. 27 shooting near the intersection of North State Street and Northside Drive.
In another case, Rico Deon Spires, who is facing a murder count in connection with the May 2018 killing of Charles Hughes, also was denied bond in municipal court, only to have his bond reduced to $500,000 in county court and $200,000 in circuit court.
Records indicate just two others had their cases adjudicated through other means. In October 2020, Dontrae Alexander entered a guilty plea to manslaughter and was released after being given credit for time served. Another defendant was committed to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield.
Meanwhile, circuit judges presided over just 22 jury trials in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit.
Victims’ rights activists say lag times and low bonds in the court system are major factors contributing to Jackson’s increase in violent crime.
One-hundred twenty-eight homicides were reported in Jackson in 2020, making it the city’s deadliest year on record. So far this year, 61 people have been murdered, putting Jackson on track to eclipse last year’s numbers.
“We’ve always had these problems right here, but we had certain judges who weren’t going to let you out,” said Larry Nelson, president of Victims of Violent Crime of Jackson. “We know that bond is not supposed to be a form of punishment, but if you kill two or three people, you have to have judges that keep you locked up.”
The judge Nelson was referring to is Jeff Weill. Weill served on the bench from 2011 to 2018 and developed a reputation for giving harsh sentences and high bonds. That reputation even earned him the moniker of “Killer Weill (Whale)” among some detainees at the Raymond Detention Center.
Thomas Hargrove, founder and chairman of the Murder Accountability Project, said problems in the court system, along with the Jackson Police Department’s low murder solve rate, send a clear message to criminals and would-be criminals that they can get away with crime.
“The failure to clear homicides increases the likelihood that there will be more homicides,” he said. “A growing number of cities have a problem with most murders not being cleared and the homicide rates being well above average.”
A homicide is considered cleared when an arrest is made. Data provided by the FBI and Murder Accountability Project showed JPD cleared just under half of its homicides in 2019, a number that’s lower than the national average and lower than clearance rates for other similar-size cities in the South.
At a March 15 Jackson City Council meeting, JPD Chief James Davis said the city’s solve rate for 2021 was up, with arrests made in 19 of the 26 homicides reported at the time.
”I’m proud to say that our detectives are standing at a clearance rate above the national average of solving homicides at 73 percent,” he said at the time.
Since that meeting, 35 more homicides have been reported in the capital city, but only eight more arrests have been made, according to the department’s Twitter account.
Davis was not immediately available for comment.
Senior Circuit Judge Tomie Green says it’s unfair to blame the courts for Jackson’s crime problem and says other jurisdictions initially offer high bonds only to lower them when no one is paying attention.
“It’s more of a psychological thing that people can go and get a higher bond, but to be honest, a bond doesn’t stop anything if the person is going to commit another offense,” she said. “If you just want to keep them in jail so they can never get out and treat them like they’re guilty, then you certainly can set it high, but generally people reduce the bond.”
Porcha Morgan said her cousin’s accused killer had been free on a low bond for two years when she was arrested on a second murder in February.
That month, Jackson police charged Augena Funchess with first-degree murder and drive-by shooting in connection with a Jan. 24 incident near the M-Bar Sports Grill in North Jackson. Police say Funchess shot and killed Kiana Singleton after the two had pulled out of the club’s parking lot onto Ridgewood Court Drive.
Funchess was out on a $50,000 bond at the time, despite being charged with first-degree murder in connection with the Jan. 2019 shooting of Kiona Morgan. She was initially denied bond by Clinton Municipal Judge Steven Boone, but the judge later lowered the amount at the behest of the public defender, city spokesman Mark Jones said.
Green left the lower bond in place but placed additional stipulations on the defendant, including requiring she avoid contact with the victim’s family and submit to a 10 p.m. curfew.
Morgan believes had Funchess remained locked up, Singleton would likely still be alive.
“I can’t do nothing but blame the judge for doing that,” she said. “I don’t think it was right at all... to have a bond that low on a murder charge.”
Video obtained from the Jan. 24 incident shows a woman who is believed to be Funchess firing at Singleton’s vehicle from the passenger side of a black Range Rover. Singleton was later found dead, slumped over in the passenger seat of her car along Wandering Way.
Funchess admitted to police that she had fired a weapon in Singleton’s direction, but said she did not kill her. During her initial appearance in February, Jackson Municipal Court Judge Jeff Reynolds gave Funchess a $1.25 million bond, an amount that was later revoked by County Court Judge Johnnie McDaniels.
Another man this year also was shot and killed at the M-Bar, allegedly by someone who had been released from jail after only a slap on the wrist.
On March 21, Hinds County authorities say Johnnie Donaldson was involved in a shootout at the restaurant that resulted in the death of 30-year-old Christopher Moncure.
Donaldson was previously convicted on a felony drug charge but was given a suspended sentence pending his completion of drug court.
In the months that followed, Donaldson was twice arrested for failing to complete drug court but Circuit Judge Winston Kidd released him each time, including on March 8, 2021, days before the March 21 incident.
Green, who could not comment on the specifics of cases, said she typically will defer to lower court judges when it comes to bonds.
“That’s generally what I’m doing, relying on the lower courts to have already looked... at the circumstances,” she said. “And I’m generally going to pull the jail roster, because orders go to the jail, and I’ll check their history.”
The circuit court has been criticized for giving low bonds for years. In 2015, WLBT reported that the two individuals arrested in connection with the robbery and murder of Belhaven resident Carolyn Temple had been given $10,000 and $25,000 bonds while facing armed robbery charges.
Later, in 2018, then Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith came out publicly against Judge Green for putting violent criminals back on the street. At the time, he was referring to Crystal Marshall, who was indicted on capital murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery charges. She was released on a $25,000 bond. Marshall later agreed to a lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“All the public fighting I had with Green, it was pretty bad,” Smith recalled. “There were cases where we did not participate in the setting of the bond and we would see someone on the news and wonder, ‘gosh, how did they get out?’”
Green said she awards bonds, in part, based on what she has given in previous similar cases. She also looks at guidance handed down by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“They gave us recommendations and they gave us ranges that are reasonable. But they also give you some deference,” she said. “They kind of got fed up with (other jurisdictions) giving a million dollars and here we’ll give a $100,000 and they reduce it to $100,000 the next day but the media didn’t pick it up.”
Recommendations were handed down in 2017. For capital felonies, the high court says bonds should range from $25,000 to no bond for capital felonies; $10,000 and $1 million for manslaughter and non-capital crimes that result in the loss of human life; and $5,000 to $1 million for drug distribution and trafficking charges.
Green also addressed the number of jury trials held, saying they are the least efficient way to dispose of cases. She said even if all four circuit judges preside over one case a week for 52 weeks a year, it would not make a dent in the circuit’s criminal docket.
“If I try a case, I’m out for a week and sometimes more than a week,” she said. “I can take 20 pleas in a week; I can’t try but one case.”
In 2019, the grand jury returned indictments on 4,323 cases. Of those, just 1,935 cases were disposed of, meaning charges were dismissed, a person was convicted or a person entered a plea.
Broken down, 465 people entered guilty pleas, 331 cases were remanded to individuals’ files and 25 people entered into pre-trial diversion programs. Additionally, records show 27 cases were dismissed, 77 records were expunged, 11 jury trials resulted in convictions, eight jury trials resulted in not-guilty verdicts and three cases ended in mistrials, court records show.
By comparison, judges in Madison County presided over a combined 13 trials in 2019. Circuit judges in Madison represent both Madison and Rankin counties. It was not known how many trials the judges presided over in Rankin.
“Out of the approximately 50 cases on each judge’s docket each term, almost all of them plead guilty or go into the pretrial intervention program,” said Laurie Prince, who works in the Madison County Circuit Clerk’s office. “Many times, the defendant elects to go trial, but when we actually call in the jury and they see that they will indeed have to face a jury, they enter a plea of guilty.”
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Backlogs of cases are nothing new for the county. In 2001, WLBT reported that Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin had to set up tents at the Raymond jail to accommodate a growing number of detainees.
Prior to the tents being set up, the late sheriff had to release detainees because of overcrowding.
“The bottleneck is simply here with the courts. I’m not saying the judges are not doing their job and I’m not saying the district attorneys are not doing their jobs,” he told reporter Burt Case. “What I’m saying is the job is not getting done. And if it’s not getting done, it’s... because we don’t have enough personnel, we don’t have enough judges, we don’t have enough prosecutors and they’re not moving through the system.”
Nationally, jury trials have been on the decline for years. Between 1962 and 2013, the percent of criminal cases resolved through jury trials in federal criminal cases declined from 8.2 to 3.6 percent, according to a Feb. 17, 2021 article in InjusticeWatch.
Green said the real problem is the court’s growing docket and lack of resources.
“We need four more judges. The four we have, we’ve had since I started practicing law, and we have more than doubled, tripled the number of criminal and civil cases,” she said.
Green was elected to the bench in 1999, about 15 years after she was admitted to the bar.
Help is on the way.
In February, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced that the state would spend about $5 million in CARES money to fund two temporary judges to help with the circuit’s backlog. Those judges will work from July 1 to December 31.
Even with those judges, Hinds County appears understaffed when compared to circuit districts in similar-sized parishes and counties.
Pulaski County, which is home to Little Rock, has 17 circuit judges. The Caddo Parish circuit, which includes Shreveport, La., has five criminal circuit judges, three civil circuit judges, and three judges that oversee domestic cases, its website states.
Hinds County has a population of 231,840, compared to 192,035 in Caddo Parish and 391,911 in Pulaski County, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
District Attorney Jody Owens previously said that his office had been operating under pre-2014 funding levels.
Even before the state approved the additional ADAs, Owens said he was ramping up efforts to push through more jury trials in the coming months. The effort is underway in part, to help reduce a backlog of nearly 2,600 cases.
“I’d like to have two or three (trials) a week,” he said.
Owens has made good on that promise in recent weeks.
In late May, a jury convicted Stacy Liddell of murder for shooting 14-year-old Roderick Johnson, Jr. He was sentenced to 30 years behind bars.
Last week, the DA’s office prosecuted two cases, one involving Monya Davis, one of three people charged in the killing of Jackson rapper Lil Lonnie, in Judge Faye Peterson’s courtroom.
At the same time, an assistant district attorney was trying Jameel Smith in Judge Winston Kidd’s courtroom. Smith was charged with aggravated assault in connection with shooting of Antonio Honey multiple times outside Honey’s apartment. Davis was eventually convicted of first-degree murder by deliberate design. Smith’s case resulted in a mistrial.
He said many cases have to go trial because so few murder suspects accept plea deals. He said those who are out on bond awaiting trial have little incentive to accept a plea, especially if that plea means a lengthy sentence.
“Nobody in their right mind wants to go to jail for a long period of time,” Owens said. “The incentive to go (accept an offer that includes jail time) is that they might get more time if they go to court.”
Of the 119 arrested on murder charges, just one plea was accepted - Dontrae Alexander. Owens said he offered pleas to the suspects involved in the Lil Lonnie case, but none accepted.
It was not known if the DA had offered a plea deal to Gino Washington.
His case is slated for July 6, 2021, in Judge Adrienne Wooten’s courtroom. Since Washington was indicted in July 2018, his case has been continued or rescheduled 11 times.
Court records indicate the case was initially continued because attorneys had not received the results of Hancock’s autopsy. Last week, Owens said he was waiting on the State Crime Lab to deliver results on about 100 autopsies.
So far, Washington has been denied bond and is being held at the Hinds County Detention Center.
Kayla Gilmore, meanwhile, is simply waiting for closure.
Years after watching her boyfriend die, Gilmore still suffers PTSD.
The month after Hancock’s murder, she was unable to stay home alone. Going to work also was difficult, because she and Hancock waited tables together.
“It took me three or four months to be OK and not cry every single night wishing I had died there with him,” she said. “It was like that for me for a while.”
Closure aside, Gilmore is worried that if Washington’s case doesn’t move forward soon that he too will have to be released on bond.
“I would most definitely be scared,” Gilmore said. “Because he knows that I turned him in.”
This is an updated version.
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