Two similar Mobile murders one day apart – one is a capital case, the other is not

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 6:08 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Two murders. Two child victims. Two different sets of charges.

The approach by the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office to killings that occurred a day apart in May has drawn attention to the discretion prosecutors exercise in determining whether or not to bring capital murder charges.

Authorities allege that at leave five people fired into a house at R.V. Taylor Plaza on May 30, killing 11-year-old Lequinten Morrissette. The very next day, police say, three people shot into a car on Michael Donald Avenue. A 14-year-old girl visiting from Texas, Ciara Jackson, died from a gunshot wound.

The three defendants in the second case all have been charged with capital murder. But the four people accused in Morrissette’s slaying so far have been charged only with felony murder.

Buzz Jordan, who represents defendant Archie Terrance Petite in the Jackson case, questioned the DA’s application of the capital murder statute.

“It’s pretty randomly used by the DA’s office. … It doesn’t seem to make any rhyme or reason or any sense,” he told FOX10 News. “And a lot of times, they will overcharge a case, charge you with capital murder, with the idea that you will plead guilty to a lesser-included offense.”

Under Alabama law, a murder can be capital if one of 20 aggravating factors apply. Jackson’s death qualifies because she died in a vehicle. But Morrissette’s death could apply in wo ways. He died in his home from shots fired from outside, and he was younger than 14.

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said her office does not automatically bring capital murder charges in every case that might apply. That decision, she said, is made by a group of prosecutors who evaluate factors like strength of the evidence and reliability of witnesses.

“We don’t just have a blanket rule – you must charge these capital,” she said. “We look at the facts and circumstances of the case. And that’s what you want a prudent DA to do, is to examine the facts with a team of seasoned prosecutors and determine if it is the best course of action to proceed with this case, charging it with capital murder.”

Extra scrutiny of death penalty

Beyond the decision about whether to charge capital murder, Rich said prosecutors apply an extra layer of scrutiny to the choice of whether to seek the death penalty or life in prison without parole. She said prosecutors never make that decision until after a grand jury has issued an indictment.

“We do another roundtable discussion to determine whether or not we seek the death penalty, because you don’t want to seek the death penalty lightly in any case,” she said. “And it is very important that we have a team of expert prosecutors that evaluate and determine whether or not we seek the death penalty.”

Dozens of capital murder cases are pending in Mobile County Circuit Court, and Rich said that number could be double or triple that if she applied the capital murder statute robotically. But the decision to exercise judgement is not based on resources, she said.

And Rich denied using capital charges as leverage for plea negotiations. She said filing a capital murder charge only to back off later causes pain for victims’ families.

“We’re re-victimizing them at that point, and I don’t want to do that to victims,” she said. “My job is to protect victims, to help victims and to do the best thing we can possibly do.”

Because of his age, the death penalty is not an option for a 16-year-old charged with capital murder in Jackson’s death. But he could still get a life sentence without possibility of parole. His attorney, Jason Darley, said transparency is crucial in capital cases – particularly when the death penalty is a possibility.

“If the government’s in the killing business, you know, there ought to be some certainty to it,” he said. “There ought to be some uniformity to it.”

Darley said the law, itself, invites uneven application of justice.

“It’s extremely arbitrary,” he said. “I can shoot into a car and kill someone, and I can be executed for that offense. But if I wait three seconds, and they’re standing outside the car and I simply shoot them and there are no other aggravating factors, I can’t be. … You can have very similar cases that have oddly different charging practices, or results.”

Upgraded charges are possible

Rich said she did not want to comment in detail on the two pending cases. But she noted that a grand jury could upgrade charges in the R.V. Taylor killing, just as it could any murder case.

“Sometimes it’s clear in the beginning, and we go ahead and charge capital murder,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not clear. As the evidence is continuing, we have enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for murder. But the evidence is continuing to build. We’re getting phone records and phone dumps and cell tower data and, you know, tag reader data and all those things.”

Although Rich would not explain the difference between the two May homicides in detail. But evidence that has come out in court suggest some possible considerations. So far, clear evidence has not been presented that R.V. Taylor shooters knew anyone was inside the home. An investigator in the Michael Donald Avenue case, however, testified that witnesses described two shooters circling the car Jackson was in.

Darley said his client did not firing into the car.

“Our client was there on scene,” he said. “He never left. People fled. Our client didn’t flee.”

Jordan, Petite’s lawyer, said he believes the evidence will show that his client did not fire int the car. And even if that were the case, he added, he doubts prosecutors would be able to prove that Petite had a specific intent to kill someone – a necessary element of a capital offense. Still, he added, one benefit to prosecutors of bring capital charges is that they ensure defendants cannot get out of jail while the charges are pending.

“In Alabama, if you’re charged with capital murder, whether it is correctly charged or not, you don’t have a bond while it’s a capital murder.”


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