The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the conviction and death sentence of a man accused of the capital murder of a two-year-old child. The reversal resulted from several errors made at trial, as well as the taint of prosecutorial misconduct.
The November 9, 2017 opinion reversed the conviction of Justin Barrett Blakeney for the murder of two-year-old Victoria Viner (“V.V.”). Blakeney was dating V.V.’s mother, Linda Viner, at the time of V.V.’s death. Blakeney was watching V.V. while Viner was at work.
On August 10, 2010, Blakeney called 911 to report that V.V. had collapsed and was non-responsive. V.V. was diagnosed with a diffuse injury throughout her brain, from which she never recovered. She was taken off life support and pronounced dead on August 12, 2010. Her death was ruled a homicide due to blunt force trauma.
Blakeney was accused of beating V.V. to death and was charged with her murder. With the help of jailhouse informant Gregory “Hobo” Hancock, the prosecution developed the theory that Blakeney murdered V.V. in order to gain admission to the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious white supremacist gang. The prosecution also used jailhouse informant Randall “Satan” Smith to gain evidence of Blakeney’s supposed plan. Both Hancock and Smith were allegedly members of the gang. At the time both Hancock and Smith had engaged Blakeney in conversation, they were both working on behalf of the State to elicit incriminating evidence to provide to the prosecution.
However, the prosecution notified the defense of its intent to use Smith and three previously undisclosed expert witnesses less than two weeks before the start date of the trial. The defense filed a motion for a continuance in order to prepare for the newly announced witnesses. The trial court denied the motion, and the trial commenced as scheduled.
At trial, Hancock’s statement to police was admitted into evidence; Smith testified as well. Based on the forensic evidence and far-fetched theory of Blakeney’s motive (there was no evidence that Blakeney had any interest in joining the Aryan Brotherhood prior to the death of V.V.), he was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed.
The Mississippi Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that capital murder cases are subject to greater scrutiny than other types of cases. It explained: “we have long taken a different approach in reviewing capital cases. In such matters, we employ a higher level of scrutiny.”
The Supreme Court reversed Blakeney’s convictions based upon three reversible errors made at trial. First, the Court determined that the trial court should have granted Blakeney a continuance when the prosecution notified him—less than two weeks before the start of trial—of its intent to use Smith and the three previously undisclosed expert witnesses. The Court concluded that because “the prosecution’s late disclosure of previously undisclosed witnesses left the defense without adequate time to prepare, we find that a continuance should have been granted.”
Second, the Mississippi Supreme Court determined that both Hancock and Smith were working as agents of the State when they engaged Blakeney. When he spoke with them, his right to counsel had already attached. As the U.S. Supreme Court instructed in Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (1964), a defendant may not be interrogated without a lawyer once the right to counsel has attached, unless he or she waives that right. Sending Hancock and Smith to obtain incriminating evidence amounted to secret interrogations that were equivalent to direct police interrogations, which is expressly prohibited by Massiah. The Mississippi Supreme Court concluded that admitting the evidence obtained by the informants violated Blakeney’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Finally, the Court concluded that the prosecution engaged in misconduct by failing to provide the results of the ATF’s electronic evaluation of cellphones and computers located in Blakeney’s residence to the defense. Claiming that there was no exculpatory evidence, the prosecution disposed of the material. The Court rejected that explanation, observing that material on the electronic devices could have supported Blakeney’s claim that he only attempted to join the Aryan Brotherhood once in prison for protection, so his alleged desire to join could not have been the motive for killing V.V. Since the material was never turned over to the defense and destroyed, whether it was exculpatory is unknown.
Suppression of exculpatory evidence violates the defendant’s due process rights regardless of whether it was done in good faith or bad faith. However, this case presents a slightly different situation—the material at issue might have been exculpatory and thus requires a showing of bad faith to constitute a violation of due process. Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988).
The Mississippi Supreme Court determined that the suppression of the material by the prosecution was in bad faith. Undoubtedly, had there been any incriminating evidence in the electronic material, the prosecution would have used it. Instead, it was likely that evidence undermining the prosecution’s theory regarding motive was contained in the material, i.e., nothing indicting Blakeney’s desire to join the Aryan Brotherhood prior to prison—no pictures of him with relevant tattoos, communications indicating his desire to join, etc. Therefore, the suppression of that material did constitute bad faith by the prosecution.
The Supreme Court held that the three foregoing reversible errors denied Blakeney an opportunity to present a complete defense. Consequently, the Court reversed his conviction and sentence and remanded his case for a new trial on the merits.
See: Blakeney v. State, 2017 Miss. LEXIS 434 (Miss. Nov. 9, 2017).
Originally published in Criminal Legal News on February 16, 2018.