Convictions tossed in 2001 aggravated assault case

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, June 28, 2012

A judge has tossed the convictions of two women convicted in Lincoln County in 2001 on aggravated assault charges.

     The possibility of a new trial remains, but Leigh Stubbs, 32, and Tammy Vance, 43, can be released today on bond. Judge Michael Taylor set bond at $5,000 apiece.

     Taylor ordered the convictions and sentences of Stubbs and Vance vacated, a decision resulting from a February bench trial in which lawyers with the Mississippi Innocence Project argued prosecutors in the original trial failed to turn over evidence damaging to the state’s case.

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     Speaking by phone Thursday morning, family members of Stubbs described their excitement at her impending release.

     “This has been an injustice,” said Steve Wade, brother-in-law of Stubbs. “The evidence was there to prove that.”

     Wade and other family members were on their way to Brookhaven from Collins Thursday morning to post bond.

     Stubbs and Vance were each serving 44-year sentences on convictions of assault resulting in serious bodily injury and drug-related charges. The charges stemmed from a 2001 incident in which Janet Kimberly Williams, a woman traveling with Stubbs and Vance from Columbus, was found unresponsive in a Brookhaven hotel room.

     On August 6, Stubbs and Vance must reappear for a hearing in Lincoln County. Prosecutors may then move forward with motions for a second trial or choose to drop the case.

     District Attorney Dee Bates said his presumption is that the state attorney general’s office will remain involved in the case.

     “The (attorney general) requested to handle this,” Bates said. “I assume they will continue to handle it. If they call me and want my input, I certainly will give it.”

     Lawyers from the state attorney general’s office, rather than the Lincoln County District Attorney, defended the original verdict at February’s bench trial. Bates was not the Lincoln County district attorney at the time of the original trial.

     It would be a dire mistake for the attorney general to take the case to a second trial, Wade said.

     “If he does, he’s completely without factual evidence,” Wade said. “All eyes will be upon this court.”

     However, Wade said the family is prepared that a second trial may happen and will be ready.

     “All along we have worked to prepare so that if the judge did overturn these verdicts and there was another trial, we would be in the driver’s seat on this,” Wade said.

     If prosecutors move forward for a second trial at the August hearing, the case could still be dropped at a later point.

     At the original trial, prosecutors relied heavily on a security videotape. Dr. Michael West, a Hattiesburg dentist, testified he could “enhance” the video tape and discern two women dragging a body in and out of the toolbox of a truck.

     However, an FBI analysis of the videotape provided to prosecutors before the original trial did not identify much of the activity West claimed to see.

     “The FBI report says Mike West is a liar,” Wade said.

     Taylor’s decision, released Wednesday, notes that West’s testimony was supported by reliance on “primitive” equipment and purported to find things the FBI frame-by-frame analysis did not find.

     West testified as an expert witness at many trials throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but his testimony in many cases has since been intensely questioned.

     Speaking of the significance of the FBI report, Taylor wrote, “The report could have been used to challenge the admissibility of West’s testimony or impeach the testimony.”

     Ultimately, Taylor endorsed arguments by defense attorneys that failure to turn over the FBI report merited a new trial.

     “The court finds that the State failed to provide the FBI report to defense counsels,” wrote Taylor in his decision. “The video evidence was material and the inability of the defense to challenge or counter it merits a new trial. Alternatively, if defense counsels had the exculpatory evidence and utterly failed to use it, then defense counsels were ineffective.”

     Wade praised the efforts of the Mississippi Innocence Project in the case.

     “They do not take cases unless they can prove that person is innocent,” Wade said.