- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Lawyers for a Byram, Mississippi, man who’s serving a life sentence without parole after his conviction in the beating death of a handyman, will argue he didn’t get a fair trial when the case comes before the Mississippi Court of Appeals on May 27 in Jackson.

Police in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland said 50-year-old Kerry Priscock was found bludgeoned to death in October 2011. They say they believe the homeless man was targeted for the money he earned working odd-jobs and for his minivan.

Jonathan Keen, now 31, was convicted in October 2012.

His attorney, Matt Baldridge, is seeking a new trial and claims the trial judge made procedural errors that inhibited the defense’s case.

Ridgeland police said the body of Priscock, a painter and handyman, was found on Oct. 11, 2011, in his minivan in Jackson. Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart said Priscock appeared to have been dead for several days and died from blows to the head. His empty wallet was found at the scene.

According to court records, prosecutors say Keen struck Priscock with a hammer at Main Harbor, a marina on the Ross Barnett Reservoir, then placed his body in the minivan and abandoned the vehicle in Jackson. Prosecutors say Keen originally planned to sell the minivan to pay off a drug debt.

Keen was indicted on capital murder, robbery and motor vehicle theft. In Mississippi, capital murder is defined as a killing committed with another crime. In this case, it was robbery.

Circuit Judge John Emfinger allowed prosecutors to drop the motor vehicle theft count.

Special Assistant Attorney General Laura Tedder said in a court brief that prosecutors did not want to violate Keen’s double-jeopardy rights “because the minivan was the subject of both the robbery and the vehicle theft.”

Baldridge said the judge’s action denied Keen a fair trial because the van theft was tied to the killing by the judge, not by the grand jury indictment.

“By instructing the jury that Mr. Priscock’s van was the subject of the robbery alleged in count I, when the grand jury had originally identified the van as the subject of count II - motor vehicle theft - the circuit court exposed Mr. Keen to conviction on different facts than he was indicted for - facts that negated his planned defense at a time when he had no chance to prepare a defense to the new scenario,” Baldridge said.

Tedder said Keen was charged with stealing from Priscock during the killing.

“The evidence showed that he took money and a van and Keen’s counsel knew that they would have to defend against the evidence of both thefts,” Tedder said in court documents.

“The underlying criminal behavior was so intermingled and interrelated, that there is no distinction between one act of theft and another,” Tedder said.

The Keen case is among dozens the Appeals Court will consider during its May-June term. A decision is expected later this year.

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