- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A woman convicted of a grisly double murder in Mississippi deserves a new trial because of racial discrimination in the selection of her jury, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a lower court ruling in the Hattiesburg murder case of Lisa Jo Chamberlin.

She was convicted and sentenced to death in the killings of Linda Heintzelman and Heintzelman’s boyfriend, Vernon Hulett. They were killed in 2004 in what the appeals court described as slayings that were gruesome “even by the standards of capital cases.”

According to the court record, the victims are alleged to have been killed after they argued with Chamberlin and her then-boyfriend, Roger Gillett, at a home they all shared.

Hulett was hit in the head with a hammer and his throat was slashed. Heintzelman was abandoned after being strangled and stabbed. When her assailants returned to find he still breathing, she was suffocated with plastic bags. The bodies were stuffed in a freezer. Hulett’s was decapitated.

The suspects moved, with the freezer, to Kansas, where one of the suspects had family. Police found the bodies while making a search in a drug investigation. Chamberlin was convicted in 2006; Gillett, in 2007.

Chamberlin is white but the court opinion noted precedents holding that defendants can challenge the exclusion of jurors of another race. And there was evidence of discrimination, the appeals court said.

“Jury selection involved a definitive pattern of the prosecution striking black jurors, resulting in a stark disparity in the percentage of blacks struck as opposed to whites,” said the majority opinion by Judge Gregg Costa, who was joined by Judge Eugene Davis. “And because a seated white juror gave identical answers to those cited in excluding the two black venire members, there is an absence of any nonpretextual justification for the strikes.”

In a lengthy dissent, Judge Edith Brown Clement disagreed with the 20-page majority opinion on a number of points, and argued that the court was unfairly accusing prosecutors of racism.

“With its opinion, the majority sends a stern message indeed to future prosecutors: be sure to explain out loud not just every peremptory strike but also every non-strike at jury selection, or else be labelled a racist by the very courts to which you have devoted your career,” Clement wrote.


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