- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The state Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a Purvis man convicted and sentenced to 20 years in 2012 for conspiring to kill his wife.

Authorities said the body of Tabitha Hartfield was found May 31, 2008, in a shallow grave deep in the woods of Lamar County. Authorities said she had been strangled, possibly up to a week before her discovery.

Joseph Ronald Hartfield was one of three people arrested and convicted in the case.

Ethan Dakota Dixon of Marion County pleaded guilty to conspiracy and accessory to murder after the fact. Dixon was sentenced to 20 years on conspiracy and five years on accessory.

Natasha Jean Graham of Lumberton was convicted murder and conspiracy. She was sentenced to life on the murder conviction and another 20 years on conspiracy.

At his trial, Hartfield sought to use letters Graham wrote to her mother, her boyfriend and Hartfield in his defense. Defense attorneys argued the letters allegedly showed Hartfield was not involved in his wife’s murder.

Prosecutor, however, argued the letters were hearsay.

The Appeals Court, in a 6-3 ruling Tuesday, said the trial judge erred in not letting the jury hear the letters.

Defense attorneys said the letters were an exception to the hearsay rule because Graham refused to testify at Hartfield’s trial.

The Appeals Court’s majority agreed. The court said Graham’s accounts of the crime in the letter were collaborated by Dixon’s statements and testimony.

Graham’s admission of guilt in the letters is inconsistent with Hartfield’s alleged guilt. Graham admits cooperation with Dixon and details the steps they took. Graham acknowledged that the conspiracy to kill and bury Tabitha was between herself and Dixon, not Hartfield. In the letter to Hartfield, Graham confesses to assisting Dixon and apologizes for it,” wrote Appeals Judge T. Kenneth Griffis.

In a dissent, Appeals Judge Tyree Irving, said he did not read the letters to show Hartfield was not involved.

“A proper interpretation of Graham’s letters leads to the inescapable conclusion that she was not present when Tabitha was killed and that the circumstances surrounding Tabitha’s death were related to her by Dixon, although her account of the post-death circumstances is based on her personal knowledge.

“Therefore, the critical statements depicting the circumstances of Tabitha’s death, which the majority finds are corroborated by Dixon’s testimony, are nothing more than double hearsay,” Irving said.

Irving said the letters also show Graham had affection from Hartfield and that raises a question of trustworthiness.

“Her letter to him clearly reveals that she was motivated to help him because of her affection for him,” Irving said.

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