T Nation

A Real Death Penalty Problem Case


Unlike the Tookie Williams case, this is a case I truly believe to be a miscarriage of justice.

It's the case of Corey Maye, and if what these reports say is true this man should not even be in prison, much less on death row.


Might want to keep a shot of something stiff nearby as you read this one.

Over the course of researching my paper, I came across the case of Cory Maye. Maye today sits on Mississippi's death row, convicted of capital murder for shooting police officer Ron Jones. It's probably worth mentioning that Jones is white, and Maye is black. It's probably also worth mentioning that at the time of his death, Jones' father was police chief of Prentiss, Mississippi, where the shooting took place. It's probably also worth mentioning that the jury who convicted Maye was white.

Here are the details, culled from various media reports and conversations with a couple of people close to the case:

Sometime in late 2001, Officer Ron Jones collected a tip from an anonymous informant that Jamie Smith, who lived opposite Maye in a duplex, was selling drugs out of his home. Jones passed the tip to the Pearl River Basin Narcotics Task Force, a regional police agency in charge of carrying out drug raids in four surrounding counties. The task force asked Jones if he'd like to come along on the raid they'd be conducting as the result of his tip. He obliged.

On the night of December 26, the task force donned paramilitary gear, and conducted a drug raid on Smith's house. Unfortunately, they hadn't done their homework. The team didn't realize that the house was a duplex, and that Maye -- who had no relationship with Smith,-- rented out the other side with his girlfirend and 1-year-old daughter.

As the raid on Smith commenced, some officers - including Jones -- went around to what they thought was a side door to Smith's residence, looking for a larger stash of drugs. The door was actually a door to Maye's home. Maye was home alone with his young daughter, and asleep, when one member of the SWAT team broke down the outside door. Jones, who wasn't armed, charged in, and made his way to Maye's bedroom. Because police believed Maye's side of the duplex was still part of Smith's residence, they never announced themselves (Note added on 12/0/05: Police said at trial that they did announce themselves before entering Maye's apartment -- Maye and his attorney say otherwise. I'm inclined to believe Maye, for reasons outlined in this post. However, even if they did, announcing seconds before bursting in just before midnight, isn't much better than not announcing at all. An innocent person on the other end of the raid, particularly if still asleep, has every reason to fear for his life.). Maye, fearing for his life and the safety of his daughter, fired at Jones, hitting him in the abdomen, just below his bulletproof vest. Jones died a short time later.

Maye had no criminal record, and wasn't the target of the search warrant. Police initially concluded they had found no drugs in Maye's side of the duplex. Then, mysteriously, police later announced they'd found "traces" of marijuana and cocaine. I talked to the attorney who represented Maye at trial. She said that to her knowledge, police had found one smoked marijuana cigarette in Maye's apartment. Regardless, since Maye wasn't the subject of the search, whether or not he had misdemeanor amounts of drugs in his possession isn't really relevant. What's relevant is whether or not he reasonably believed his life was in danger. Seems pretty clear to me that that would be a reasonable assumption.

It apparently wasn't so clear to Mississippi's criminal justice system. In January of last year, Maye was convicted of capital murder for the shooting of Officer Jones. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Let's summarize: Cops mistakenly break down the door of a sleeping man, late at night, as part of drug raid. Turns out, the man wasn't named in the warrant, and wasn't a suspect. The man, frigthened for himself and his 18-month old daughter, fires at an intruder who jumps into his bedroom after the door's been kicked in. Turns out that the man, who is black, has killed the white son of the town's police chief. He's later convicted and sentenced to death by a white jury. The man has no criminal record, and police rather tellingly changed their story about drugs (rather, traces of drugs) in his possession at the time of the raid.

The story gets more bizarre from there.

Maye's attorney tells me that after the trial, she spoke with two jurors by phone. She learned from them that the consensus among jurors was that Maye was convicted for two reasons. The first is that though they initially liked her, Maye's lawyer, the jury soured on her when, in her closing arguments, she intimated that if the jury showed no mercy for Maye, God might neglect to bestow mercy on them when they meet him in heaven. They said the second reason May was convicted was that the jury felt he'd been spoiled by his mother and grandmother, and wasn't very respectful of elders and authority figures. The facts of the case barely entered the picture. Gotta' love the South.

It gets weirder. Maye's family terminated his trial attorney after he was convicted. In her place, they hired a guy from California with no legal experience who convinced them that he'd had bad representation (given his lawyer's closing argument, he was probably on to something). The new fellow has since failed on several occasions to file the proper appeals.

Maye's case is an outrage. Prentiss, Mississippi clearly violated Maye's civil rights the moment its cops needlessly and recklessly stormed his home in the middle of the night. The state of Mississippi is about to add a perverse twist to that violation by executing Maye for daring to defend himself.


Today, I talked to the circuit court clerk for Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi.

Mississippi has surprisingly transparency-friendly open records laws, so I was able to ask for a copy of the search warrant that led to Maye's death. It's on the way. The clerk was a little gruff with me at first, asking rather matter-of-factly, though in quite an elegant drawl, what the heck I wanted with it.

I explained the situation. She told me to call back in an hour. I called back, and she said she had the warrant. She'd need a written request, however, before she could release it to me. So I faxed one over.

I was a little anxious about what the warrant said, so on a whim, I asked if she could take a quick look at it for me. The conversation went something like this:

Her: You want me to read the whole thing? It's very long.

Me: No, that's okay. I just have a hunch about what's in it that I was hoping you could check out for me.

Her: What would you like me to look for?

Me: Are you familiar with the Cory Maye case?

Her: Oh, yes. I know what happened.

Me: My guess is that you'll find the name of Jaimie Wilson on that warrant, but you won't find the name of Cory Maye. Could you check to satisfy my curiosity before you send me a copy?

Her: Okay. Let's see.... Jaimie....

Me: Wilson...

Her: Yes, now I see his name is on the warrant. Jaimie Wilson.

Me: Now look for Cory Maye.

Her: Silence.

Me: Corey Maye?

Her: Silence.

Me: Is he in there anywhere?

Her: Oh my.

I haven't yet seen the warrant myself. But the clerk confirmed to me over the pohne that Cory Maye's name wasn't anywhere on it. Now have a look at this AP story from January 2004 ( http://www.clarionledger.com/news/0401/25/m14.html ). The article was written after Maye was sentenced to death, more than two years after the shooting. Relevant excerpt:

[i]A Jefferson Davis County man will pay with his life for the 2001 shooting death of a Prentiss police officer.

Cory Maye, 23, showed no reaction when a Marion County jury of eight women and four men found him guilty of capital murder Friday in the death of Officer Ron Jones.

Jones was one of eight officers conducting a search warrant looking for illegal drugs at [b]two apartments[/b] on Mary Street in Prentiss on Dec. 26, 2001. Shortly after Jones entered Maye's bedroom, he was shot in the chest, the bullet missing his protective vest.[/i]

Emphasis mine. It's certainly possible that the reporter who filed this story screwed up, and simply assumed the warrant covered both sides of the duplex. Or it's possible that Pentiss police misled the media into thinking exactly that. None of the stories written on the Maye case that I've seen so far have pointed out that Maye was not the original subject of the raid.

So let's re-sum what we know so far: Police broke down Maye's door at sometime after 11:30pm at night. He was alone with his daughter. He was not a drug suspect, nor were police authorized by the warrant to enter his home. Maye had no prior criminal record. And police said at the time that no drugs were found in his apartment, though they later say they found "traces" of marijuana and cocaine.

Here's the text of Mississippi's "capitol murder" law, for which Maye was convicted and sentenced to death:

[i] "(2) The killing of a human being without the authority of law by any means or in any manner shall be capital murder in the following cases:

(a) Murder which is perpetrated by killing a peace officer or fireman while such officer or fireman is acting in his official capacity or by reason of an act performed in his official capacity, and [b]with knowledge that the victim was a peace officer or fireman..."[/b][/i]

Emphasis mine. The question is, did Maye know that Jones was a cop? I've yet to see trial transcripts or the police report, but Maye's former attorney tells me that the police team conducting the raid insist they announced themselves before breaking into Maye's apartment. The jury, I suppose, therefore concluded that a reasonable person in Maye's position should have known that Jones was a cop.

Maye's former attorney has her doubts. I have mine, too. There's plenty of reason to suspect otherwise. First, it's doubtful that Jones and the officer who broke the door down ahead of him announced themselves. It's clear from the warrant that they weren't even aware the target of the warrant was a duplex with a second, separate residence. What's more, Jones stormed Maye's bedroom unarmed, a pretty clear indication that the police didn't believe someone else was taking up residence there. Why would a cop announce if (a) the SWAT team has already apprehended the subject of the raid, and (b) the entering cop desn't suspect there's anyone else in the room he's entering?

Second, even if Jones or another officer did announce themselves, there's still penty of reason to think a reasonable person in Maye's position could still not have known the invaders were police.

It was late at night. It was dark. And Maye was frightened. Further, given that Maye wasn't a criminal, wasn't a drug dealer, and wasn't the subject of the warrant, you could make a pretty good case that a guy like Maye would assume that anyone breaking down his door in the middle of the night would be anybody but a cop. He certainly hadn't done anything to merit such a violent apprehension. Instead, a reasonable first reaction would have been to assume it was an intruder about to do him or his daughter harm.

Which brings us to self-defense. Maye's actions didn't meet a capitol murder charge on its face. But he also had the right to defend himself, his daughter, and his home. Here's Mississippi law on justifiable homicide:

[i](1) The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or omission of another shall be justifiable in the following cases:


f) When committed in the lawful defense of one's own person or any other human being, where there shall be reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury, and there shall be imminent danger of such design being accomplished...[/i]

Put yourself in Maye's shoes. You have no criminal record. You've done nothing wrong. In the middle of the night, in a bad neighborhood, you awake to find someone attempting to break down your door. The door flies open, and a man in black paramilitary gear comes storming into your bedroom, where your infant daughter also happens to be sleeping.

Not only is that set of circumstances "reasonable ground" to think that someone is about to do you "great personal injury," and that you're in "imminent danger" of said personal injury being accomplished, you'd be crazy not to take quick action to defend yourself.

The SWAT team was in Maye's home illegally. And they failed to exercise due dilligence in obtaining the search warrant, given that they were obviously unaware that the target of the warrant was a duplex with a second residence. These are facts.

I'd argue that the town of Prentiss, and the men who executed the warrant owe Maye compensation. Lots of it. Instead, we're arguing about whether Maye ought to be put to death for defending himself.

Something's very wrong, here.

(Thanks to this fellow ( http://publicola.mu.nu/archives/2005/12/08/the_night_that_the_light_went_out_in_mississippi.html ) for following up on Mississippi statutory law, saving me some time.)


That's pretty fucked up if accurate. I would have shot someone coming into my apartment at night when my wife and kids were in bed.

Do you have any articles saying the conviction was justified?


Wow. This case dose not sound like it even comes close to meating the standard for the death penalty (as years of Law and Order reruns have formed my understanding of it). BB, shouldn't this be a pretty easy appeal?


I had never heard of this case previously to reading about it on Radley Balko's weblog.

Doing a search, it doesn't appear to be a well known case - not too much comes up, and nothing pro-conviction. I would be interested to read the trial transcript.


It depends on the facts of the situation, particularly issues raised by his lawyer at trial. However, given it's a death penalty case, usually they are less stringent with standards of review on the appellate level.

Hopefully with publicity this man will get a top-notch appellate attorney to take his case pro bono - maybe a law professor who would have lots of student-research hours to help devote to the case.

This really bugs me, because from what's presented this guy does not seem morally culpable to me at all.


This is why we need to fast track the death penalty and stop wasting all this money hearing appealls on condemned men.

In all seriousness, if this story is accurate it's a sad reflection of the state of "justice" in this country. I expect this sort of thing out of a thirh world country, but not Mississ- er, nevermind.

How far does sovereign immunity apply in this sort of case? How far could criminal culpability be extended towards those involved if they knowingly acted improperly in the conviction of Maye? Is the situation different with gross negligence?


And we wonder why so many people do not trust the "justice" (and I use that term loosely) system.

OJ walks and this guy dies?!?


You'd think the NAACP and ACLU would be all over this. I wouldn't be surprised to see a pretty hefty civil suit filed down the road.



It's been awhile since I had to think about state sovereign immunity doctrine, which is pretty complicated. Hopefully I'm being accurate here. Sovereign immunity basically holds that you can't sue the state, and I think it covers people who are doing their duty in their official capacity.

However, I believe there is an exception for people who are knowingly and willfully breaking the law -- so, in this case, if someone supressed evidence or committed perjury, I think he would be personally liable. However, I don't think the state would be liable unless there was a pattern of such corruption or rights violations demonstrated by the police department over time, or unless it decided to waive its sovereign immunity.

I don't think the exception would attach to gross negligence, but it's possible that if it were bad enough the judge would decide that it did -- or that it just wasn't negligence.


This guy should get a medal rather than the death penalty.

I am generally pro-law enforcement, but if they are too lazy/stupid to kick down the correct door then they are not very good at their jobs.

If this story is accurate let this guy out of jail today!


This blogger wrote a letter to Governor Barbour on the Maye case:


I think more people, especially residents of Mississippi, should do the same:

The Honorable Haley Barbour
Governor, State of Mississippi
P.O. Box 139
Jackson, Mississippi 39205
(877) 405-0733


In that case, you could never convict someone who shot a police officer entering a residence, warrant or no.

This piece raises more questions than it answers. Certainly, if the police did not identify themselves, then it's on them. But making an error in the execution of a search warrant does not automatically license the offended party to shoot an officer.

Also, it's their word against his as to whether or not they announced that they were entering beforehand. So, I'm not convinced.


Also... the author keeps saying how the police "changed their story" about "traces of drugs."

Anybody here watch CSI? You look around, see if there are any obvious stashes. Nope. Ok, look for residue or whatever. It actually takes lab work (and therefore time, and therefore "mysterious" announcements at a later date) to figure out if collected samples indicate trace amounts of controlled substances.


FYI, CSI is a fictional show (fucking with you Nephrom).

There was a case in the Hill Country in Texas about 8 years ago where the police busted in the wrong house in the middle of the night and gave a guy a heart attack (and I think killed him). I'm trying to find information about it (some of you internet nerds might get it quicker than me), because I can't remember how the case was resolved.


Some fun, light reading on the subject:



More for shits and giggles:


(Waco is a particularly touchy subject with me)


It wouldn't matter if they were entering the wrong house on a warrant.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that they did find drugs in the house. Let's even assume they found a kilo of cocaine. If it wasn't the correct house they were searching, then it's extremely likely the evidence would be excluded from any trial on drug charges.

But, more relevant to the case at hand, I look at this as kind of a reverse siuation from the situation in which the air marshalls shot the guy who claimed he had a bomb in Miami. It's tragic, but it's not their fault. In this case, if the police were entering the wrong house, and the guy was acting in what would be legal self defense on an intruder, then I don't see him as being culpable either.

Legally, it's important to note that this is essentially self defense. With a self defense claim, the burden of proof is on the person who did the action, so here, Maye would need to prove that he didn't know it was a cop. However, from what's written here, given the wrong address of the warrant, I would have a hard time were I on the jury voting for a conviction.


I am no fan of the "drug war," nor in miltary tactics carried out on ordinary citizens. I'm just suggesting that we may be getting a skewed account of the Cory Maye case.

At any rate, how bad does it have to be before the citizens of this country revolt? It won't happen, because wealth breeds indolence, and people are too worried about iPods and spinning rims to really give a shit if federal agents are executing people based on questionable evidence about questionable crimes.
And even if we were able to revolt, who would take over? There are no unifying beliefs common to everyone that would facilitate restructuring the state from scratch and ensuring personal liberties. Rather, each "side" seems to have its own reasons for restricting various liberties.

It's a sad, hopeless, liberty-free world we live in.


I'm aware of that, but the "mysterious" appearance of "trace amounts" is used as a rhetorical device to imply some sort of tampering or revision by the police department. I'm just pointing out that it isn't very mysterious.

This probably should've been a manslaughter case, not capital murder. Unfortunately, it comes down to their word against his, and is therefore a bit difficult to untangle. Problem: if the defendant claiming the police never announced their presence is sufficient for reasonable doubt, then police could never execute a search warrant without taking along recording equipment of some kind.


This wouldn't be a problem in most cases, as in most cases you have a large number of cops -- or at least multiple cops -- going in the entrances to the proper house at the same time, and you have their corroboration or each other's testimony. From my reading of this, you had one guy going in the door of the wrong house by himself (which, circumstantially, would go to the idea that he thought he was going into the same house, that had already been subject to an announced entry).

As I said, from reading the above, and assuming it's accurate, it looks highly problematic to me.