Commentary

Railroaded Onto Death Row?

This article appeared on Foxnews.com on February 15, 2006.

On December 26, 2001, police in the small town of Prentiss, Miss., executed a marijuana search warrant on a small duplex.

On one side of the duplex lived Jamie Smith, described in the search warrant and police affidavit as a “known drug dealer.” When police pounded on his door, Smith answered and surrendered. That, of course, is what you’d expect a small-time marijuana dealer to do.

On the other side of the duplex, 20-year-old Cory Maye had fallen asleep in an easy chair. His 18-month-old daughter lay asleep in the next room. Maye had only recently moved out of his parents’ home. He had moved in with his girlfriend, because, he says, he wanted to be a father to his daughter. Maye was uncomfortable in his new home, and had expressed concerns to his mother about the seedy neighborhood surrounding it. Still, he promised to stick it out until after the holidays.

Late that night, Maye said he awoke to a furious pounding on his front door. According to his court testimony, he became frightened for his safety, and for the safety of his daughter. He ran back to the bedroom, where his daughter was asleep on the bed. He retrieved the gun he had for home protection, loaded it, chambered a round, and lay down on the floor next to her, hoping the noises and/or intruders outside would subside.

They didn’t. Soon enough, Maye says, the door to Maye’s bedroom flew open, and a figure entered from the outside. Scared, Maye fired his gun three times.

The figure was police officer Ron Jones, and one of Maye’s bullets struck Jones in the abdomen, killing him. Worse for Maye, Jones also happened to be the son of the town’s police chief.

The above is Cory Maye’s version of events. As you might guess, the police offered a different account of the raid. They say they repeatedly announced they were police, and asked Maye to open up. They say an anonymous informant had told the investigating officer that there was a “large stash” of marijuana in the apartment Cory Maye shared with his girlfriend. And they say Cory Maye knew that Ron Jones was a police officer when he shot him.

A Mississippi jury believed the police. Last year, Cory Maye was found guilty of capital murder, or the intentional killing of a police officer. The same afternoon, he was sentenced to death. And today he sits on Mississippi’s death row.

That Cory Maye is even in prison is an appalling failure of Mississippi’s criminal justice system. Police had no reason to be in his home that night, much less to break down his door. His case is just the latest in a series of tragic consequences resulting from the overuse of paramilitary tactics when police serve drug warrants.

But it’s the details of Cory Maye’s case that make it particularly compelling:

Cory Maye had no prior criminal record. He had no history of violence. Police found one gram of ashen marijuana in Maye’s apartment (that’s about a sixth of a teabag’s worth). There was no “large stash,” and Cory Maye was no drug dealer. In fact, Maye’s name appeared nowhere on the search warrant, only his address and the phrase “persons unknown.”

Then there’s the matter of the informant. We’ll never know who that informant was, nor will we ever know what kind of corroborating investigation was done before securing the warrant. That’s because the entire investigation leading up to the raid was conducted by the same Officer Ron Jones who was killed in the raid.

According to District Attorney Buddy McDonald, Jones kept no notes or documentation of his investigation of the Wilson-Maye duplex; and any investigation he may have done, in the words of McDonald, “died with Officer Jones.”

Cory Maye may well have been a recreational pot smoker. But then, possession of a misdemeanor amount of pot doesn’t justify an armed home invasion. Cory Maye may also have fired his gun too quickly. But what would you have done? You have no criminal record. You aren’t a dangerous person. You have no reason to think police would break into your home in the middle of the night. You awake to find that your home is under attack. The door flies open. Do you wait to see who it is? Or do you defend your family?

Don’t think it can’t happen. There are dozens of examples of late night “no-knock” drug raids executed on the wrong home, or on people guilty of, at worst, misdemeanor offenses. Any gun owner willing to defend his family from intruders could well be in the same position Cory Maye was in four years ago.

At the very worst, Maye is guilty of recklessness. It’s horrifying to think he could be executed for an error in judgment, an error compounded by volatile circumstances, a frightening assault, and high-stakes drama, none of which were of his making.

But it gets worse. For the last 10 years, Bob Evans has been public defender for the town of Prentiss. Late last year, Evans says he was warned by town officials not to represent Cory Maye in his appeal. Evans ignored the threats, and gave Maye representation. In January of this year, Prentiss made good on its promise, and fired Evans.

According to Evans, Prentiss Mayor Charlie Dumas told him point blank that he was terminated for representing Cory Maye. In a phone interview, Mayor Dumas confirmed having a conversation with Evans, but declined to go into specifics. Calls to the town’s aldermen weren’t returned, or were answered with “no comment.”

If Evans’ version of events is true, the firing stinks. It’s the kind of thing public officials do when they have something to hide. And it only adds to the already obvious notion that the town of Prentiss doesn’t much care about giving Cory Maye a fair shake at justice.

Cory Maye should unite both liberal death penalty foes and conservative gun rights advocates. Liberals bothered by Tookie Williams’ execution should be outraged by the Maye situation. Conservatives troubled by Waco should work to stop more Prentisses from happening.

I think Maye deserves an apology. He certainly doesn’t deserve death.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.