Death-penalty decision a ‘dangerous precedent’
Former prosecutor J. Ronald Parrish is perplexed by several points in the state Supreme Court’s order to reverse a death-penalty case that he handled. But two points in particular bother him because of the potential implications for future cases and because of the personal implications on his character.
The high court took issue with Parrish’s use of “jailhouse snitches” who testified that Justin Blakeney admitted to them that he killed his girlfriend’s daughter, 2-year-old Victoria Viner. They testified that he tried to use the death of the toddler, who was half-Mexican, to gain entry into the Aryan Brotherhood, a powerful prison gang. Blakeney was found guilty of capital murder by a Greene County jury and Judge Billy Joe Landrum sentenced him to death in July 2014.
Asking the snitches to get proof made them “agents of the state,” according to the opinion written by Justice Leslie D. King.
“When (the snitches) contacted the DA’s office saying they had information on the case, I told them that they’re criminals, so their word isn’t good enough,” said Parrish, who was an assistant district attorney for 11 years before retiring in 2014. “I told them I wasn’t putting them on the stand unless I could prove what they said was true. According to the Supreme Court, you can’t do that.”
Parrish said he thought he believed he was being fair and responsible by taking steps to find out if the information Greg “Hobo” Hancock and Randall “Satan” Smith was providing was true.
“To just take their word for it makes no sense,” he said. “By not making criminals prove what they’re saying is true, that may foster more innocent people being prosecuted. It punishes the innocent and protects the guilty.”
Referring to Hancock and Smith as agents of the state is “absolutely absurd,” Parrish said, adding that almost half of all criminal cases require the use of testimony from other criminals.
“It’s a dangerous precedent,” he said.
The two words in the 28-page opinion that hit hardest, though, were “prosecutorial misconduct.” That’s because King’s assertion was based on a misinterpretation of a quote that was in the trial transcript that was used in the opinion he handed down.
“There’s a statement where I said, ‘I don’t keep exculpatory evidence,’” Parrish said, but it was later converted into, ‘I destroyed exculpatory evidence.’ That’s a helluva difference.”
Parrish was referring to an ATF report that was referred to in the opinion.
“I have no idea what the ATF report business was,” he said. “I never saw it. If it did exist, it is with the sheriff or still in the file at the DA’s office. No one in that office ever destroyed anything.”
Parrish said he would have liked to have argued his points before the justices, but that’s not the way the system works.
“The Supreme Court gets to write opinions into law that stay there forever, and you don’t get to defend yourself,” he said. “It’s very frustrating when you can be smeared by a group of people … and have absolutely no recourse.”
Parrish was known as an outspoken prosecutor, and he was often a critic of the high court and many of the justices’ lack of criminal court experience.
“There’s no doubt they don’t like me,” he said, but he doesn’t believe that’s the reason for the reversal, he added. “They believe they’re right. It’s called an opinion for a reason.”
The Supreme Court noted that Blakeney raised 12 issues on appeal, but the three it addressed said the trial court erred in:
• Not allowing a continuance after prosecutors “introduced previously undisclosed expert and lay witnesses shortly before the trial;”
• Admitting evidence “obtained from or through Hancock or Smith;”
The court also addressed the issue of “whether prosecutorial evidence tainted the litigation.”
Blakeney’s attorney Bill LaBarre accused Parrish of withholding evidence that may have proved his client was innocent, such as photos of him before he had tattoos that are associated with the Aryan Brotherhood.
But Parrish insists that the defense got everything he had in a timely fashion and there was no “trial by ambush,” as was written in the opinion.
“You can’t give stuff before you get it,” he said.
For example, when Parrish received a letter in which Blakeney confessed to killing the “half-breed” toddler, he didn’t turn it over to the defense until a handwriting expert verified that the signature was Blakeney’s, he said.
But the main point Parrish makes is that a grand jury indicted Blakeney for capital murder based on medical evidence alone, before the Aryan Brotherhood allegations and jailhouse snitches came forward.
Statistics show that about one out of every five death-penalty cases is reversed and sent back for retrial.
DA Tony Buckley has said that his office will seek the death penalty again in the second trial.
“I have every confidence that the DA and his office will handle it and do a good job,” Parrish said. “It’s in good hands.”
Victoria Viner was under Blakeney’s care in August 2010 while her mother Lidia was at work. Blakeney said that the toddler fell and hit her head and he called 911. Several doctors testified that the little girl’s injury was not caused by a fall but by “blunt-force trauma” that was consistent with abuse. A pathologist ruled that the cause of death was “homicide.”
Blakeney was indicted for capital murder in December 2010, after the medical evidence was complete. The girl’s mother, who was in the country illegally, pleaded guilty to negligence and was deported to Mexico.
The Jones County Sheriff’s Department discovered Blakeney’s Aryan Brotherhood tattoos and literature in a “shakedown” at the jail in April 2013.
That’s when Hancock, who had previously been incarcerated with Blakeney, came forward and went with Blakeney’s mother to visit him at the jail. In a transcript of the conversation, Hancock said, “Just the bi-racial killing is gonna get you in there,” he said, referring to the Aryan Brotherhood. Blakeney responded, “Aight.”
All inmates are made aware that their conversations are recorded.
Buckley said he couldn’t speculate when the case would be set for retrial.
Parrish said he hopes all of the legal wrangling doesn’t cause people to lose sight of why the case went to trial.
“No one seems to remember Victoria Viner,” he said.