Women taste freedom after convictions vacated

Published 8:00 pm Friday, June 29, 2012

Eleven years. Visitation allowed twice a month. She only missed visitation three times.

     All that changed Thursday.

     Lori Herrington won’t need to drive to Jackson or Greenville twice monthly to see her twin sister, Leigh Stubbs.

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     Just two days shy of 11 years in prison, Stubbs, 32, of Collins, and another women, Tammy Vance, 43, of Dry Prong, La., were ordered released on bond by a local judge after he tossed their aggravated assault convictions.

     Both women were embraced with tears and hugs Thursday afternoon at the Lincoln County jail after their release. One sentence was quick on their lips: “I’m just in shock.”

     In between smiles and hugs of disbelief with her family, Stubbs struggled to explain her feelings.

     “I’m speechless,” she said.

     Both women were released late in the afternoon Thursday, about a full day after Judge Michael Taylor ordered their 2001 convictions thrown out. Stubbs, Vance and their families called the hours since then a rollercoaster of emotion and anticipation.

     “I haven’t slept or eaten since I found out yesterday,” Vance said.

     Stubbs’ sisters also described a long, sleepless night.

     Vance was eager to scratch one item off her post-prison wish list. On crutches due to a foot injury, she hobbled over to a vending machine, was handed a dollar bill by family and bought a Dr Pepper.

     Both women were convicted in 2001 on charges of aggravated assault after a third woman they were traveling with was found injured and unconscious in a Brookhaven hotel room. At a trial in February of this year, lawyers with the Mississippi Innocence Project argued the original prosecutors failed to turn over evidence damaging to the state’s case.

     “We had lost hope until the Innocence Project got involved,” Herrington said.

     Following the failure of original attempts to appeal the case, family members filed an application with the Mississippi Innocence project.

     Herrington said the family was initially nervous about the Innocence Project application. At that point, almost every other option had been tried.

     Valena Beety, current senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, explained the standards for accepting a case.

     “We have to believe someone is innocent to pursue a case,” Beety said while waiting with family for the two women to be released.

     The family described the wait since February’s bench trial as long and tension-filled.

     “We were always anxious,” said Steve Wade, brother-in-law to Stubbs. “We had the facts on our side, but you never know.”

     Still, friends and family said they always remained confident,

     “We absolutely knew this day would come,” said Kathy Helton, a former employer of Vance.

     The criminal charges against Stubbs and Vance remain unresolved, however. Though their original convictions have been vacated, officials could choose to take them to a second trial.

     Wade said the family is prepared for that possibility but remains hopeful.

     Prosecutors at the original trial relied heavily on the testimony of Dr. Michael West, of Hattiesburg. He testified he could match bite marks on the victim’s body to the women on trial and claimed he could enhance a security videotape.

     West himself has since said he now doubts the validity of bite mark analysis, and the heart of their February trial was an FBI analysis of the security videotape that partially contradicted West’s testimony.

     “We’re cautiously optimistic,” Wade said. “This was a circumstantial case, and that’s gone. The West stuff is gone.”

     Beety said she had no way to speculate whether officials will pursue a second trial. If there is a second trial, the Mississippi Innocence Project will continue to represent Stubbs and Vance.

     Wade expressed disappointment the attorney general has continued to defend cases in which testimony by West was used. Instead, he thinks West himself should be the target of investigation.

     “The Mississippi attorney general and Lincoln County district attorney should commit to pursue charges against Dr. Michael West for fraudulent testimony and perjury,” Wade said.

     Lawyers with the state attorney general’s office defended the original conviction at February’s trial. Wednesday, Lincoln County District Attorney Dee Bates said he assumes the attorney general will continue to handle the case.

     Bates was not district attorney at the time of the original conviction. Dunn Lampton was Lincoln County’s district attorney then.

     But until the Aug. 6 hearing at which the family will see whether prosecutors want a second trial, the families are focusing on the women they haven’t been able to embrace in more than a decade.

     “We’ve been waiting for this a long time,” Herrington said.