Federal panel orders review of Mississippi death row case







A federal appeals panel has ruled Mississippi’s process of evaluating the mental competency of death row inmate Robert Simon Jr. was unfair.

The three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a Mississippi federal judge to take another look at Simon’s case.

Simon was sentenced to death for the killings of three members of a Quitman County family. He got a life sentence in the death of a fourth family member. A 5th Circuit panel stopped Simon’s execution last May because of questions about the procedure and directed attorneys to file briefs on the mental evaluation issue.

The Mississippi Supreme Court temporarily delayed Simon’s execution last April to give prosecutors and the defense time to review Simon’s medical records. That ruling came amid a claim by Simon’s attorney that the inmate had suffered a fall and could not understand his case and had trouble carrying on conversations.

Court records show Simon was found unconscious in his cell on Jan. 7, 2001. He spent several days in the hospital at the Parchman state prison. He was examined by mental health experts chosen by the prison.

The Mississippi court denied Simon’s request to be evaluated by his mental health expert. Instead, Simon relied on an affidavit from a mental health expert who had reviewed Simon’s medical records. That expert reported the medical records indicated Simon may have suffered some neuropsychological damage from the fall. The expert said a complete mental evaluation would determine how much damage Simon suffered.

The attorney general’s office responded with affidavits from the two prison-selected experts.

The Mississippi court ruled Simon’s medical records showed no sign of impairment. A federal judge sided with the state in May 2011 decision. Simon appealed to the 5th Circuit.

The three-judge panel, in its ruling released Thursday, said it was difficult to view the process as fair when Simon was not allowed a mental evaluation from someone other than a prison expert.

“We do not hold that prisoners are entitled to experts in order to make a threshold showing of incompetence.

“We merely hold that the procedures in this case, which allowed the state to present expert evaluations while Simon was prevented from presenting countervailing expert evaluations, violated fundamental fairness and due process,” the panel said.

“The competency evaluation must at all times be a process that is fundamentally fair to the prisoner alleging his own incompetence, and the process Simon received did not meet that standard.”

This not the first time Mississippi death row inmates have attacked policies they claim deny them access to their own mental health experts.

Most recently, attorneys for Edwin Hart Turner, who was executed in February, had argued that a Mississippi Department of Corrections policy that dates to the 1990s prevented Turner from getting independent tests and exams that could prove he’s mentally ill.

Attorney General Jim Hood was not immediately available for comment.

In May 2011, Hood said if Simon got a new mental evaluation based on the fall, Mississippi could expect more such claims from death row inmates.

“We’re going to see a rash of knot heads at Parchman,” Hood told The Associated Press. “We’ll have to put cameras into every cell on death row because they are all going to claim they fell and bumped their head.”

Last May, the 5th Circuit panel said at that time that it was concerned the deficiencies in Simon’s petition were created by the state’s refusal to allow an evaluation of Simon by a doctor hired by the defense.

“In such a situation, a holding that Simon’s evidence does not amount to a ‘substantial threshold showing’ might be tantamount to holding that a state can always prevent a petitioner from making such a showing by simply forbidding his experts from examining him,” the panel said.

Hood said it appeared the 5th Circuit was given more information than it could digest in a short time, and that is partly the fault of defense attorneys who waited until the last minute to file Simon’s petition.

Simon, now 47, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1990 slayings of Carl Parker; Parker’s wife, Bobbie Jo; and their 12-year-old son, Gregory. The killings occurred a few hours after the family had returned to their rural Quitman County home from church services.

Simon also was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of 9-year-old Charlotte Parker, daughter of the slain couple.

Also convicted in the killings was Anthony Carr, now 45, who is also on death row.



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