Nearly everything from WLBT investigation into Rankin Co. tax assessor inadmissible in his trial, judge rules

Judge Steven Ratcliff issued order days before trial began, allowing a handful of texts and suggestive language
Tax Assessor John Sullivan body cam
Tax Assessor John Sullivan body cam(WLBT)
Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 8:16 PM CDT
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RANKIN COUNTY, Miss. (WLBT) - A judge has ordered the jury in the Rankin County tax assessor’s sexual battery trial cannot be shown the elected official’s DUI arrest or colorful language that took place before the alleged sex acts, information first unearthed in a 3 On Your Side investigation last year.

Rankin County Circuit Court Judge Steven Ratcliff issued the order five days before trial began, which limited evidence, law enforcement testimony, and the circumstances of Tax Assessor John Sullivan’s arrest by Byram police on March 26, 2022.

Specifically, it excludes Sullivan’s arrest by Byram police, his DUI charge, and his level of intoxication that night.

Sullivan’s attorney, Merrida Coxwell, filed a Motion in Limine regarding the evidence, writing to Ratcliff that “evidence which is incompetent and inflammatory in character carries with it a presumption of prejudice.”

Special Assistant Attorney General Lindsay Cranford responded, telling the judge the statements are “evidence of the Defendant’s state of mind immediately prior to the sexual assault and are admissible to prove motive, intent, preparation, plan, and absence of mistake.”

As 3 On Your Side first reported last year, the DUI arrest and subsequent interrogation by Byram police officers took place a few hours before a 19-year-old girl accused Sullivan of rape.

Byram Police Officer Shawn Walters, who testified Monday, was only allowed to tell the jurors -- one of whom is female -- that he encountered Sullivan during a traffic stop, providing little context except who was inside the truck and their approximate ages.

Our investigation revealed Sullivan’s blood alcohol content was originally 0.19 when he was pulled over on Siwell Road for crossing the yellow line.

At the time, the tax assessor didn’t know the ages of the people inside the truck with him that night, according to body and dash camera footage obtained by 3 On Your Side.

Surveillance footage inside the Byram Police Department booking room shows the elected official bragging to Walters about being a professional drunk and repeatedly mentioning a hot tub at his house where he would be partaking in sexual activity.

The order only allowed three statements from Sullivan’s nearly hour-long conversation with the officer:

“We were going to the hot tub. And I thought it was going to be a good hot tub night. Sex and p***y and [inaudible].”

“I’m just telling you it was going to be a good night.”

“I’m just saying it was going to be a good hot tub night.”

Surveillance video showed that Sullivan also told Walters that some of the people he was with were “good lookin’ [expletive] whores” and said he was going to get four of those [expletives] into his hot tub, but the jury will not get to hear those statements.

On Tuesday, one witness who accompanied the victim to Sullivan’s house testified before the jury, and the court viewed videos from Dockery Grill of Sullivan dancing with one of the girl’s mothers and surveillance video from Sullivan’s home.

The surveillance footage showed the victim taking the cover of the hot tub off before jumping in, which Coxwell has argued shows that she was not “physically helpless,” a key point in the state’s case.

Last July, a Rankin County grand jury indicted Sullivan on three counts of sexual battery, specifically of a person “physically helpless.” In Mississippi statute, that is defined as “one who is unconscious or one who for any other reason is physically incapable of communicating an unwillingness to engage in an act.”

Sullivan remains in office, though he is not running for re-election.

If convicted, Sullivan would be removed from office and face a maximum of 30 years in prison for each count of sexual battery.

The judge’s order also excluded any texts from Sullivan’s phone prior to the March 26, 2022 incident, only allowing a handful of texts sent afterward that allude to his fear of prosecution once the victim decided to press charges.

“She filed papers with the city of Florence at 5 this morning so it’s over for me,” Sullivan texted an unknown party. “I [sic] doesn’t matter if I’m an elected official it doesn’t matter if I’m innocent!!! This is going to ruin my life no matter what.”

Sullivan then asked the unknown person for a favor.

“Any chance y’all could talk that girl into withdrawing the charges??”

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