Stringer v. State, 55607

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Citation500 So.2d 928
Docket NumberNo. 55607,55607
PartiesJimmy Michael STRINGER v. STATE of Mississippi.
Decision Date03 September 1986

Page 928

500 So.2d 928
Jimmy Michael STRINGER
STATE of Mississippi.
No. 55607.
Supreme Court of Mississippi.
Sept. 3, 1986.
Rehearing Denied Feb. 4, 1987.

Page 930

Harry L. Kelley, Florence, for appellant.

Edwin Lloyd Pittman, Atty. Gen. by Amy D. Whitten, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., and Marvin L. White, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., Jackson, for appellee.

En Banc.

DAN M. LEE, Justice for the Court:

On June 21, 1982, James Michael (Jimbo) Stringer, his father, James Stringer, Sr., John Mack Parker, Rhonda Brock, and Michael Medders entered the South Jackson home of Ray and Nell McWilliams, intending to rob and kill the couple. Ray McWilliams unexpectedly put up a fight; in the ensuing scuffle, McWilliams was shot and killed. Almost simultaneously, Jimbo Stringer put a shotgun to the back of Nell McWilliams' head, as she attempted to crawl away, and pulled the trigger. The blast tore away the top of Mrs. McWilliams' head, killing her instantly.

Jimbo Stringer was previously convicted of the capital murder of Nell McWilliams and was sentenced to life imprisonment. This appeal stems from his conviction of the capital murder of Ray McWilliams, for which he received the death penalty. We affirm his conviction, but reverse and remand only his sentence of death in this bifurcated proceeding.

We are loathe to reverse this sentence, for the ruthlessness and brutality of this crime cry out for the severest punishment permitted by law. Despite our reluctance to reverse, we are duty bound and sworn by oath to uphold the laws of the State of Mississippi. We are thus entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the criminal justice system of this state works to guarantee that every defendant brought before its tribunals receives a fair and impartial trial. To that end, we must instill in all officers of the trial courts a sense of their own responsibility in preserving our system of justice. To avoid abuse of that system, we admonish all prosecutors, trial judges, and other affected officials to follow the rules and provide a fundamentally fair hearing at the sentencing (death penalty) phase, or be prepared to "do it again."

We give the jury in a capital murder case the awesome responsibility to determine sentencing. The jury should deliberate on the death penalty in the same atmosphere of fairness and impartiality in which it would consider the verdict of guilt or innocence, taking into account only whether the statutory aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating circumstances. We have the ultimate faith that the jury will do exactly that, if it is not improperly influenced. However, when the jury imposes a penalty of death on the basis of passion, prejudice, or matters extraneous to the issue before it, that penalty must be reversed because of the improper influence.

We vacate and remand the death penalty in this case because the prosecution improperly influenced the jury during the sentencing phase. The attorneys for the state committed no single error egregious enough, standing alone, to mandate reversal. However, the combination of argument and trial tactics by the prosecutors was sufficient to inflame and prejudice the jury in its deliberation on the death penalty. Specifically, the errors that we hold to merit reversal are:

1) The introduction into evidence of photographs of the body of Nell McWilliams. (Note that Jimbo Stringer was previously convicted of the murder of Nell McWilliams. Stringer v. State, 491 So.2d 837 (Miss.1986). This appeal stems from his trial for the murder of Ray McWilliams.)

2) The display to the jury, during closing argument, of color slides of the body of Nell McWilliams.

3) The state's attempt to prevent Stringer from calling John Mack Parker as a witness.

4) The prosecutor's questioning during voir dire, to get a commitment from the jury to exclude certain mitigating factors from its consideration of the death penalty and his subsequent reminder to the jury of that promise, under oath, during closing argument.

Page 931

5) The "last chance" argument, to influence the jury to return the death penalty for the killing of Mrs. McWilliams.

6) The prosecution's comment on Stringer's failure to testify.

The heightened review which we give to death penalty cases requires us to consider the cumulative impact of all of these factors. We hold that their aggregate effect was to deny the defendant below a fundamentally fair trial on whether he should suffer the death penalty.

Our system of jurisprudence is the best yet developed by mankind to try and punish criminal offenders. However, in order for it to work, all officers of the courts must recognize and carry out their responsibility to ensure a fair and complete trial for every criminal defendant and the state. That responsibility is not based upon some abstract principle, but evolves from our responsibility as public officials. We all owe a duty to the taxpayers of this state to give criminal defendants a full and complete trial the first time around. When this Court reverses and remands a case for a new trial, it not only diminishes public confidence in our system of justice, it also creates the additional expense of trying the defendant again. Far too many cases, like this one, are reversed for errors in prosecutorial conduct which are not difficult to anticipate or correct. It is with this in mind that we instruct on the law, so as not to encounter in the future the frustration of reversing cases because of errors which we have warned against before.

We would urge trial judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to read and carefully consider this opinion. Our solemn duty is to guarantee a fundamentally fair trial to the state of Mississippi and all criminal defendants. We intend to abide by our duty, which will be made easier if all adhere to the spirit of the following language:

The fair way is the safe way, and the safe way is the best way, in every criminal prosecution. The history of criminal jurisprudence and practice demonstrates generally that if every one prosecuted for crime were fairly and fully conceded all to which he is entitled, and if all doubtful advantages to the state were declined, and if adventurous forays into dangerous and unknown fields were shunned, and if the beaten paths were heedfully followed, there would be secured as many convictions of the guilty, and such convictions would be succeeded by few or no reversals.

Hill v. State, 72 Miss. 527, 534-5, 17 So. 375, 377 (1895).

On November 28, 1983, Jimbo was tried for the murder of Mr. Ray McWilliams. He was convicted of that murder and received the death penalty on December 1, 1983. He now appeals that conviction, and assigns eighteen (18) errors to the court below, which will be dealt with separately in this opinion.


On June 21, 1982, Ray and Nell McWilliams were found shot to death in their south Jackson home. McWilliams was in the business of buying gold and silver jewelry. James Stringer, who was in the same business, was questioned about the case on June 22, 1982; however, no arrests were made until after July 2, 1982. On that date, Rhonda Brock made a statement to the Kosciusko police regarding the case. That statement implicated Jimbo Stringer, James Stringer, Sr., and Brock's then traveling companion, Mike Medders, in the murder. After Jackson police who were investigating the murders realized that Brock's statement was inconsistent with the physical evidence, she was again questioned, on July 3, 1982. At that time she was placed in custody and gave another statement which was consistent with physical evidence and implicated her former lover, John Mack Parker. Mike Medders was also arrested, and he subsequently gave a statement to the police. Both Brock and Medders were originally charged with capital murder; however, the state agreed to accept guilty pleas to manslaughter in return for their cooperation in testifying against the other participants in the crime.

Page 932

Brock and Medders testified at Jimbo's trial, and, while their stories disagreed in some small details, they were essentially the same. According to them, Brock, Medders, James Stringer, and John Mack Parker met on June 21, 1982, at the apartment of James Stringer's girlfriend. The purpose of the meeting was to plan the robbery and murder of the McWilliamses. James Stringer knew that Ray McWilliams kept a safe in his house with sums of money and jewelry in it. The plan was to tie up the McWilliamses, get the combination to the safe, and then murder the couple. During this planning, James Stringer called his son, Jimbo, and asked him to bring some bullets over. Jimbo later arrived with the bullets and a shotgun. When he arrived, his father asked him if he would like to come along with them, and he agreed.

Later that evening, the five drove to the McWilliamses' home. As they had planned, Rhonda Brock gained entry to the home by posing as a potential seller of gold and silver. Ray McWilliams admitted her into his house; James Stringer entered it with her. Stringer and McWilliams began to struggle, and a shot went off during that time. Then Parker, Jimbo, and Medders entered the home. Jimbo went further into the house with his shotgun, pointed it at the floor and shot. Parker told Mr. McWilliams "You are a dead man," and, after that, another shot went off. As they were leaving the house, Mr. Stringer asked Jimbo if Mrs. McWilliams was dead, and he said that she was. The robbery plan was aborted because apparently someone noticed that McWilliams' neighbor, whom they knew to be a policeman, was coming across the backyard to investigate the shots. The five jumped back into their car and fled the scene.

According to testimony from the pathologist, Mr. McWilliams died from a wound to his face, and his other wounds were consistent with a struggle over a gun. According to Dr. Galvez, his death came very quickly. Mrs. McWilliams was killed by a shotgun...

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