Fisher v. State

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Citation481 So.2d 203
Docket NumberNo. 56050,56050
PartiesLarry R. FISHER v. STATE of Mississippi.
Decision Date16 October 1985

William B. Jacob, H.C. "Mike" Watkins, Meridian, for appellant.

Edwin Lloyd Pittman, Atty. Gen., Marvin L. White, Jr., Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., Jackson, Charles Wright, Dist. Atty., Meridian, for appellee.


ROBERTSON, Justice, for the Court.

I. Overview

The tensions inherent between the constitutionally vested rights of the press to be free and one criminally accused to a fair trial have troubled this and other states for years.

On the one hand, we regard freedom of the press as essential to the security of our democratic society. At the same time our law vests in each person charged with a crime the right to be tried in the courtroom, not the newspaper, the right to have his or her guilt pronounced only by the jury, not the media. Our law has provided a mechanism for accommodation of these rights: the change of venue.

Today we are presented the case of Larry Fisher, who has been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die. In a very real sense Fisher's guilt was announced by the news media of Meridian, Mississippi, loudly and long before a Lauderdale County jury was ever impaneled to hear the case. By this he was denied his right to a fair trial before the trial began. In this context we regard that the trial judge abused his discretion in refusing Fisher's motion for a change of venue. We reverse and remand.

II. The Case Below
A. The Circumstantial Case For the Prosecution

Melinda Gail Weathers, an eighteen year old high school senior, was reported missing on Wednesday night, May 4, 1983, when she failed to return home after a softball game at the Sammy Davidson Complex in Meridian, Mississippi. Sometime that night, after 9:00 p.m., her car was seen abandoned on the side of Highway 11/80 East several miles east of Meridian and facing her hometown of Russell, Mississippi, her supposed destination. When the car was found by law enforcement officers on Thursday morning of May 5, 1983, it had been moved on to the northbound side of Highway 45 Bypass.

Four days later, on May 7, 1983, Melinda's body was discovered by a search party approximately 75 yards off Angel Road on an old logging trail. Angel Road is off Highway 45 and is about three miles north of where the car was found. Her body was naked except for the socks and tennis shoes on her feet and a green shop rag between her legs. Two autopsies determined that death was caused by asphyxia due to manual strangulation. Time of death was estimated to have been between the late evening hours of May 4 and early morning hours of May 5. The autopsy also determined that Melinda had had sexual contact with a male within a short time prior to her death.

After the discovery of Melinda's body, law enforcement authorities theorized that the suspect might be the same individual about whom they had received reports from another female, Pat Rivers, who had been stopped and raped along Highway 11/80. The similar rape-murder of a second girl, Carol Formby, was only suspected at this time--Formby had disappeared prior to May 4 but her body was not discovered until June 9, four days after the arrest of the defendant. In any event, the office of the Lauderdale County Sheriff in conjunction with the Meridian police organized a decoy operation designed to attract a suspect whose mode of operation had been to stop lone female drivers along the highway, under one pretext or another, rape, and in at least two suspected instances, kill them.

For a full month after Weathers disappeared and her body had been found, the perpetrator of the crime remained at large. In the early hours of Saturday morning, June 4, 1983, the decoy, who no doubt appeared to be a lone female, was driving on Highway 11/80 heading towards Russell. In fact, Detective Bobby House was concealed in the backseat, crouched down on the floor behind the driver's seat and out of view and a backup car with two other detectives, S.A. Thomas and L.B. Robbins, was following the two at a discreet distance. A pickup truck approached from behind and flashed its headlights off and on. The decoy driver pulled over and stopped, the pickup truck pulled in behind and also stopped. The driver of the pickup got out and approached and as he reached the decoy driver Detective House sprang from the backseat and arrested the startled Larry Fisher 1 at which point the backup car arrived.

After Fisher's arrest, a cursory search 2 was made of his truck, and the officers recovered several items: a homemade "for sale" sign, a multicolored towel, some pieces of hair, and a green mechanic's rag. Other searches were conducted at his residence and place of employment but we are not told whether any items were recovered.

On Sunday, June 5, another search was made at which time Detective S.A. Thomas discovered a gold Italian horn pendant, in the ashtray of Fisher's truck. The Crime Lab searched the truck on June 6 and a Marlboro cigarette box was taken from the front seat. 3 The search 4 by the Crime Lab personnel lasted for about two and a half hours, and included the dash area both visually with the aid of a flashlight and by reaching into any crevice under the dash by hand. 5 Another search was conducted on Tuesday, June 7, by Detectives Thomas, Robbins, House and Franklin. During this search, Detective Thomas inspected the area under the seat of the truck and found a small earring back. As Thomas explained it:

... We came from the sheriff's office, and Deputy Ernest Jackson opened the truck door and we moved it out and opened the door. And I did a--squatted down to the ground and done a visual search before actually entering the vehicle. And at that time is when I saw the piece of metal [the earring back] under the seat between the--where the seat brackets to the floor and also the seat belt brackets to the floor and a rib in the design of the truck bottom.

On the day Melinda Gail Weathers disappeared she had on her class ring, her watch, a gold chain with her good luck charm--an Italian horn pendant--on it, and a pair of gold nugget earrings. When her body was discovered, it had the Seiko watch, the class ring and one earring 6 in the left ear. One of the earrings was easily sprung and would come off. Melinda's mother identified the Italian horn pendant found in the ashtray of Larry Fisher's truck as Melinda's.

Ms. Pat Eddings, a forensic scientist at the Mississippi Crime Lab, conducted an examination on the back of the earring found on Melinda's body and the back of an earring found in Larry Fisher's truck by Detective Thomas and compared the two. She concluded:

From the microscopic examinations and also from the elemental composition comparison work that I did, I did discover that both the earrings ... were similar in size, in their design, in their construction, and in their elemental composition.

As a part of the autopsy performed on May 7, Dr. John Davis examined the genital area and found a before death injury to the right of the clitoris of the victim's body. Dr. Leroy Riddick performed a subsequent autopsy with findings substantially the same except as to the external injury to the right of the clitoris. Whereas Dr. Davis identified this as a split, Dr. Leroy Riddick characterized this as "a little zone of discoloration, hyperemia or increased amount of blood flow." In his opinion, this was a before death injury.

Dr. Davis noted the presence of spermatozoa in the vaginal washings taken from Melinda's body. The presence of spermatozoa, of course, indicates sexual contact with a male. Dr. Riddick took specimen (vaginal swabs) from the vagina area. Both specimen were examined by Mr. Larry Turner of the Mississippi Crime Lab. Both specimen contained seminal fluid. Based on his findings, Turner could not exclude Mr. Fisher as the individual whose seminal fluid was found in the specimen taken from Melinda Gail Weathers. The effect of Turner's testimony was that the man with whom Melinda had had sexual contact could have been anyone of approximately 45 percent of the male population of the United States, and that Larry Fisher could not on the basis of the tests be excluded from that 45 percent.

Pubic hair was recovered from the floor area of the passenger side of Larry Fisher's truck. This specimen was examined together with a known sample taken from the defendant and it was determined that they came from the same person, namely Larry Fisher. No pubic hair coming from the victim was found on Fisher or in his truck. Conversely, no pubic hair attributable to Fisher was found on Weathers or on the rag found on her body. Hair samples that were taken from the victim, Melinda Weathers, were compared with hair samples from the rag 7 found between her legs, these samples do match. These were her hairs, however, not Fishers'.

At this point the evidentiary investigation of the case against Larry Fisher took an unexpected turn. On July 13, 1983, Fisher's truck--which had been sitting on the Sheriff's parking lot since June 4, 1983, was released to his mother, Mrs. Betty Ream. The truck was then taken to the parking lot of Nelson Hall Chevrolet, the former employer of her son. Mrs. Ream had intended to sell the truck to Hall, but they could not agree on a price. Sometime that afternoon the truck was test run by an employee by the name of Robert Mansour, who subsequently parked it by the back of the lot. Although the lot has a chain link fence, the gates to the lot were not locked. Sometime later that afternoon, Mansour got back into the truck with a Joe Canterbury who had informed him that Larry has a BMW radio in the truck. They played a cassette tape that was in the glove compartment. Joe Canterbury left and another employee, Paul Lundy, joined Mansour. Mansour asked Lundy if he thought "they searched everywhere" meaning whether the law enforcement officers conducted a thorough search. Paul Lundy...

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