Several months ago, I wrote a column here about the case of Cory Maye, a man in Mississippi on death row for shooting the son of the local town police chief during a botched drug raid.
There have been some significant developments in the case since then. But first, perhaps it's best to go over a quick summary of what happened (for a longer version, you might check a recent article on the case I wrote for Reason magazine):
Late on the night of December 26, 2001, Officer Ron Jones assembled a group of policemen to respond to a tip from a confidential informant that there was marijuana in the bright yellow duplex Maye and his family shared with a man named Jamie Smith. Smith, described in the search warrants as a "known drug dealer," had drug charges pending against him from the previous August.
Maye, who had no criminal record and barely a misdemeanor amount of ashen marijuana in his home, wasn't even named in the warrants. When the door to the bedroom where his 18-month old daughter was sleeping flew open after being kicked several times, Maye fired at the first figure to come through. The figure was that of Officer Jones. Jones is white. Maye is black. Jones was the son of the town police chief. And all of this took place in Prentiss, Mississippi, a town plagued by poor race relations, high unemployment, soaring crime rates, and a burgeoning drug trade.
Maye maintains that he didn't know the raiding officers were police. He says he fired his gun in self-defense, and in defense of his daughter. The jury didn't believe him. In 2004, he was convicted of capital murder -- the intentional killing of an on-duty police officer -- and sentenced to death.
I stumbled upon Mr. Maye's case in December of 2005 while researching a paper on paramilitary drug raids for the Cato Institute. Having reviewed close to a thousand drug raids, Cory Maye's case jumped right off the page at me. It seemed pretty clear that something was terribly wrong. When I obtained copies of the (http://www.theagitator.com/maye.warrant.pdf) search warrants and affidavits, and saw that Mr. Maye's name didn't appear on them, I began writing about the case on my personal weblog. In just a few days, blogs from across the political spectrum had picked up on the case--nearly all of them rallying to Maye's cause.
Maye's plight soon caught the attention of Abe Pafford, an associate at the large Washington, D.C. law firm Covington and Burling. Mr. Pafford got in touch with Maye's post-conviction attorney, a local public defender named Bob Evans, and soon the Covington firm was funding its own investigation, hiring its own experts, and assembling a new motion to overturn Mr. Maye's conviction.
Earlier this month, a private investigator hired by Maye's new legal team discovered the identity of the confidential informant whose tip led to the raid. He is Randy Gentry, a poor, uneducated local and, unfortunately, raving racist. When Mr. Gentry found out the investigator was working for Mr. Maye's defense, he left a profane 45-second rant on the answering machine of one of the defense lawyers, complete with racial epithets and threats. The messages have been posted on the Agitator Web site.
Mr. Gentry, described in police affidavits and search warrants as reliable and trustworthy, has apparently been used as an informant on several occasions, and put more than a few black people in the area in jail.
Late last month, a bit of good news finally came Cory Maye's way. At a hearing in which he listened to a battery of defense motions, circuit court Judge Michael Eubanks issued two rulings from the bench. He first found that Maye's attorney during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, a Jackson lawyer named Rhonda Cooper, was competent. But Eubanks also ruled that Cooper was incompetent during the death penalty phase of the trial. With that, Eubanks ordered Maye to be taken off of death row pending the new sentencing trial.
Eubanks will rule on the remaining defense motions later. He could leave things as they are -- upholding the conviction, while ordering a new sentencing trial. He could also order a new trial. He could even set Mr. Maye free, finding insufficient evidence to support a conviction. After sitting through the two-day hearing in Poplarville, Miss., I found the defense case for a new trial or a not-guilty verdict devastatingly persuasive. But if there's reason for optimism, it should be a cautious optimism. Judges rarely grant these types of motions.
Should Judge Eubanks' remaining rulings not go his way, Maye would then get a direct appeal to the Mississippi state Supreme Court, after which he would begin his federal appeals process. There is also the possibility of a pardon or clemency from the governor, though with the current governor, that seems unlikely.
Cory Maye shouldn't be in prison. His reprieve from the death chamber is a good start (perhaps the best benefit of that is that he'll now be able to actually touch his children when they visit, something he hasn't been permitted to do for two-and-a-half years while on death row). It's hard to fathom that a man with no prior record and a miniscule amount of marijuana in his home would intentionally shoot and kill a police officer. The bizarre behavior from prosecution witnesses, Maye's first attorney, and the town of Prentiss itself only confirm suspicions that a terrible injustice has transpired.
But beyond that, Mr. Maye's case should provoke a national debate about drug policing, including the use of confidential informants and confrontational paramilitary tactics. Despite the predicament he's in, Mr. Maye at least now has the benefit of adequate council. Makes you wonder how many like Mr. Maye don't, and sit in prison cells waiting for someone to stumble upon their story, too.
Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in "nanny state" and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity and civil liberties. Separately, he maintains the The Agitator weblog. The opinions expressed in his column for FOXNews.com are his own and are not to be associated with Cato unless otherwise indicated.