- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A Hinds County man convicted of capital murder will get a chance to persuade a judge that his confession was involuntary.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled 9-0 Thursday that Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill erred when he didn’t hold a hearing on the issue, which was raised in the run-up to the 2014 trial of Laqunn Gary.

Gary’s public defender argued that he was 17 and too immature to appreciate his actions when he waived his rights to remain silent and have an attorney during a police interview in 2012. During questioning, Gary confessed to shooting Vizavian Darby, abandoning a rental car Darby was driving, and hiding his and Darby’s guns. After confessing, he led detectives to the guns.

If Weill rules Gary’s confession was voluntary, his conviction will stand. If he finds it was involuntary, justices told Weill to overturn the conviction and give Gary a new trial. Gary is now serving a sentence of life without parole.

Justices note that Weill himself acknowledged, in ruling that the confession was voluntary, that he hadn’t allowed the defense to fully argue to suppress the confession.

“This was error,” wrote Justice James Maxwell. “Because Gary had questioned the voluntariness of his confession, he had a due-process right to a suppression hearing. And the state had the burden to prove his confession was in fact voluntary.”

The question of whether Gary knew what he was doing is complicated by the fact that one detective who interviewed Gary - Eric Smith - was killed in 2013 when a suspect grabbed his gun and shot him inside Jackson police headquarters. The other detective in Gary’s case, Patricia Wilder, witnessed Smith’s death and declined to testify in Gary’s case, with her therapist testifying it would aggravate Wilder’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

During the hearing on Wilder’s availability, the prosecution argued that Gary was actually 18 at the time of the shooting. Gary then took the stand and said he was 17. A prosecutor challenged him with his signed statement, listing a date of birth that made him 18, and then played the confession video to the point where he told detectives he was 18. It was this testimony that apparently led Weill to rule the confession was voluntary.

“The trial court relied on evidence introduced through Gary - over his objection - to rule Gary’s confession was admissible,” Maxwell wrote. He said the state had to prove admissibility, and only then does a defendant have to provide evidence of involuntariness.

Four justices, concurring separately, were even more critical. They said Weill forced Gary to violate his right against self-incrimination.

“Simply put, Gary was forced to give evidence against himself, in violation of one of our most basic tenets of constitutional law,” wrote Justice James Kitchens. “Even without the gross mishandling of the suppression motions, this error alone would warrant reversal.”


Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff%20Amy .

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