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Innocence Project eyes assault case

Lawyers with the Mississippi Innocence Project argued in a bench trial Wednesday that two 2001 Lincoln County convictions should be thrown out.

     Leigh Stubbs, 32, and Tammy Vance, 43, were convicted in 2001 on aggravated assault for the beating of Janet Kimberly Williams, who was traveling with them from Columbus to Louisiana. The incident happened at a Brookhaven hotel.

     Stubbs and Vance were both sentenced to 44 years for the assault charge and several drug-related convictions.

     Lawyers for Vance and Stubbs are now asking Lincoln Circuit Court Judge Michael Taylor for a factual finding of innocence in the case.

     The request is based on the assertion that Lincoln County prosecutors failed to turn over an FBI analysis of surveillance footage used at trial and that Stubbs and Vance received inadequate representation by their original defense attorneys.

     “What we’re talking about is whether the trial they had was fair,” said Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project and an attorney involved in the case.

     Central to the petition for post-conviction relief is the testimony of Dr. Michael West in the case. A Hattiesburg dentist, West testified throughout the 1990s and 2000s as an expert in bite mark analysis, among other things.

     The validity of his court testimony has come under question in many cases, and Wednesday Carrington cited deposition testimony in which West himself said he no longer believes bite mark analysis to be valid.

     His bite mark testimony was not the focal point of Wednesday’s hearing, however.

     During the original trial, West testified about surveillance footage in the case. West said the video footage showed two women moving a body. However, an FBI analysis of the same tape was far less conclusive and West did not possess the credentials to testify as an expert witness in video analysis, according to Carrington.

     The central issue in Wednesday’s hearing was whether the FBI report was ever turned over to the defense. However, the primary defense attorneys for Stubbs and Vance at the time and Lincoln County’s then-District Attorney Dunn Lampton have all died.

     Vance and Stubbs’ attorneys insist there is no evidence defense attorneys ever possessed the report, citing depositions and live testimony by defense attorneys who assisted in the case and are still alive.

     “We are having to draw reasonable inferences,” said Merrida “Buddy” Coxwell, representing Vance. “It’s more likely than not that report was never turned over to the defense.”

     Jerry Rushing, assistant DA during the original trial, testified Wednesday that if the FBI analysis was in the DA files, the defense could have accessed it.

     “If I had that report, it would have been in my files,” Rushing said, explaining the defense had full access to his files.

     However, Rushing said he could not recollect whether the analysis was in the files at the time.

     According to Carrington and Coxwell, examination of the DA records has no copy of the FBI analysis.

     In Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors have a duty to turn over exculpatory evidence. Failure to do so violates a defendant’s due process rights.

     Exculpatory possess is evidence that would indicate the defendant is innocent.

     Both Rushing and Marvin Sanders, arguing for the state, suggested that even if the tape was not turned over, it is not exculpatory.

     In the trial of Stubbs and Vance, West testified that he could enhance a surveillance videotape of the hotel Stubbs and Vance were staying in.

     On the tape, West purported that he could see two women carrying a body out of a truck’s toolbox. He offered descriptions of the women seen on the tape.

     According to the lawyers for Stubbs and Vance now, the FBI analysis said the number of people in the tape could not be determined. The report suggested someone might be taking a suitcase or other object out of the toolbox.

     The charge of inadequate representation hinges on the failure of Stubbs and Vance’s defense attorney to object to remarks made about the defendants’ sexual orientation at trial and their failure to object to West’s video tape testimony.

     Both the petitioners for Stubbs and Vance and the state rested Wednesday.      As the hearing was a bench trial, Taylor will now deliberate in the case. It was not clear when the judge may rule in the case.

     Last year, the Mississippi Supreme Court sent the case to Lincoln County’s circuit clerk for hearing.

     Carrington is prepared to wait a while for a ruling from Taylor.

     “We gave him a lot of documents to look at,” Carrington said. “But I think the judge has enough evidence in front of him to show innocence.”