3 On Your Side Investigates: Failure to Indict - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Failure to Indict

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

A 3 On Your Side investigation reveals that, over the last year, a Hinds County judge has ordered the release of at least four accused killers over a lack of grand jury indictments.

The most recent of these was 21-year-old Nicholas Coats, who had been arrested and charged with the murder of Chelsei Lynn Kirschten in August 2017.

The Hinds County Sheriff's Office confirmed Coats' release from the Raymond Detention Center on Jan. 10.

Court documents and subsequent jail records show three other murder suspects, Jayland Henderson, Travia Henderson and Joshua Thomas, are also no longer incarcerated, having been let go per County Court Judge William Skinner's order.

Police charged Jayland and Travia Henderson in the death of 26-year-old Jamie Washington on Gammill Street in May 2017.  A Hinds County grand jury had until October 24 to indict the two.

In Thomas' case, he remained behind bars until January, six months past the release date Skinner originally issued. Thomas had been charged with murder for shooting and killing 29-year-old Mario Lampkin nearly a year ago.

While Skinner set bail for Jayland and Travia Henderson, it was denied for Coats and Thomas. 

In Coats' case, bail was denied in part because the suspect was thought to be a possible danger to people and the community, yet he was released less than six months after his arrest.

A 3 On Your Side analysis of felony criminal cases from the last year shows Skinner authorized nearly a dozen future releases as well; in each of those cases, suspects were denied bail.

"It's on your mind all the time: someone who is out, such as [Coats] or another, and you get a phone call that something has happened badly," Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith said.

Smith said that's one reason he remains discouraged by the practice of county judges allowing suspects to be released if they're not indicted by a grand jury.

Many judges in Hinds County try to operate by a 90-day rule: if a grand jury doesn't indict within that window, a suspect can go free because of a "lack of prosecution."

"Based on the law, eight months is the time frame where we're supposed to review. And 90 days is fine to see where we are, but again, an automatic trigger release is something that's unconstitutional and improper," said Smith.

Professor Matt Steffey with the Mississippi College School of Law said he has a hard time seeing the DA's constitutional argument.

"I can't imagine the DA is saying that they are constitutionally entitled to hold people without charges as long as they like. That is certainly not true," said Steffey. "It is the court's job to say 'Indict or release.' That is the court's job."

It's also the responsibility of the district attorney's office, specifically Smith, to ensure these cases are brought before a grand jury.

Smith said in many cases, evidence may not be ready.

Initially, the district attorney said the delay in indicting Coats came from a lead Jackson police detective who was unavailable due to suspension.

After that response was scrutinized during an interview Monday, specifically because of a report by Jackson Jambalaya that former Police Chief Lee Vance said there was no lead detective on that case, Smith refuted that again, saying lead detectives are used on cases all the time.

He also said they don't have all the evidence in the Coats case yet.

"In the Coats case, that file is still not at our office. It's still at the Jackson Police Department," Smith said.

However, Steffey said grand jury proceedings don't require the same kinds of evidence that are admissible in court.

"Every time I think about the Hinds County criminal justice system, I'm reminded of a sign I saw years ago in an automotive repair shop. It said something along the lines of 'Good job, fast job, cheap job. Pick two.' They have a very heavy caseload. Heaviest in the state, I believe," added Steffey.  "They are not awash in funds and resources. They handle matters of the highest importance, and so, imposing deadlines puts some pressure on doing it right or doing it fast."

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