JACKSON, Mississippi — The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the death sentence of a man convicted of killing a Hattiesburg couple and bringing their bodies to Kansas in a freezer.
Roger Lee Gillett was convicted in 2007 in Forrest County on two counts of capital murder. While in custody in Kansas, he attempted to escape. That crime was one of the aggravating factors prosecutors presented to jurors in arguing for the death penalty.
The Supreme Court, in its 6-3 decision, said not every escape is considered a crime of violence under Kansas law. Therefore, wrote Justice Ann Lamar, the Kansas crime cannot be used to support a death sentence in Mississippi.
Lamar said escape should not have been presented to Gillett's jury.
The court did not overturn Gillett's convictions.
Thursday's decision was a reversal of the same court's finding in 2010 that there was other evidence besides the escape to justify a death sentence. Three dissenting justices said the court should uphold that decision.
In Mississippi, the death penalty can be imposed by a jury only after it finds certain aggravating circumstances. Aggravating circumstances include particularly heinous acts of violence, violent criminal histories or other circumstances determined by judges and juries.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that state appellate courts can uphold death sentences for defendants convicted of murder, even if their sentencing juries wrongly considered some adverse evidence. The Mississippi attorney general's office used the same argument in trying to uphold Gillett's death sentence. But in 2006, the high court said a death sentence must be set aside if a jury considered inadmissible evidence that otherwise would not have been before it.
Gillett seized on those decisions in arguing in his post-conviction petition that his death sentences should be thrown out.