Mississippi case inspired death penalty investigation

Ronnie Lee Conner.
Ronnie Lee Conner.

Ronnie Lee Conner inspired this series of stories.

Psychotic and delusional, he sits on Mississippi's death row, fouling his cell with his own feces and urine, his demented screams and shouts keeping other prisoners awake at night.

Conner has been acting out in bizarre ways for years. But his jury never heard about his mental impairments.

His lawyers failed to prepare or present any evidence of his problems during his trial for slashing the throat of an elderly woman in Meridian, near the Alabama border.

Conner's case prompted a simple question: How frequently are prisoners condemned to death without juries knowing such starkly pertinent information?

McClatchy Newspapers set out in 2004 to answer that question in a way that goes beyond anecdotes and other singular examples.

McClatchy reviewed 80 recent death-penalty cases from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, examining what lawyers in those cases did to defend their clients' lives. Trial transcripts and appeal records were reviewed; lawyers and experts were interviewed.

The states were chosen based on two criteria: They don't have statewide systems for providing adequate lawyers in capital cases, and they're all states in which prosecutors regularly seek death and authorities have shown a willingness to execute prisoners.

The cases were chosen from among all the death sentences given in those states from 1997 through 2004. In each state, the survey started with the most recent conviction and went backward until 20 cases had been researched.

All the cases that McClatchy reviewed were in some stage of appeal and available at each state's supreme court. McClatchy's cases don't include all the most recent ones in a given state because not all the case files or trial transcripts were available.

In Mississippi and Virginia, the research yielded a majority of the death sentences imposed in those states from 1997 through 2004. Georgia's cases represented a third of all death sentences in that period. In Alabama, whose death row is much larger and whose appeals move much more slowly, the available cases were clustered almost entirely from 1997 through 1999.

In Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, case files initially were researched by Jeff Skelton, an Atlanta-based paralegal hired through New Frontiers International, Ltd.

The series' author, Stephen Henderson, is McClatchy's Supreme Court correspondent.

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