Appeals court to hear Mississippi death row inmate's case; convicted killer wants new trial

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JACKSON, Mississippi — A Mississippi man who pleaded guilty in the rape and killing of a waitress in 2000 should get a new trial because his attorneys gave him poor legal advice for his case, his lawyers said in court documents filed with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court decided last week that it would hear oral arguments in the case of Thomas Loden Jr., who pleaded guilty in the killing of 16-year-old Leesa Gray. He was sentenced to death for pleading guilty to murder plus 30 years on kidnapping and rape counts.

Gray disappeared June 22, 2000, while on her way home from work as a waitress at her family's restaurant in the Dorsey community. According to court documents, her body was found the next day in Loden's van.

The 5th Circuit will hear oral arguments on Loden's appeal on Dec. 16 in Houston.

Loden has previously argued his original defense attorney failed to fully investigate his mental condition and background and gave him poor advice that led him to plead guilty and waive jury sentencing.

"Loden was required to decide whether he wanted to go to a jury trial with counsel who had failed to conduct a thorough mitigation investigation, who were unprepared to try the case, who had no witnesses lined up, and who had no strategy about how to defend Loden during either the guilt or penalty phases," attorney Mark R. McDonald wrote.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers ruled Loden failed to prove his trial attorneys were inadequate.

Biggers sided with the Mississippi Supreme Court's findings that Loden was given "the basic tools of an adequate defense," including funding to hire an investigator, a full evaluation by the forensic staff at the Mississippi State Hospital and the services of an independent psychologist.

The Mississippi attorney general's office said Loden was aware of the proceedings that were taking place in the state court and actively participated in a question-and-answer session during his guilty plea.

"From the record evidence in this case it is clear that petitioner (Loden) ordered his counsel not to object to the state's sentencing case, cross-examine any of the witnesses or to put on a case in mitigation. The record shows that counsel had investigated for mitigation and were ready to present such evidence to the trial court had they been allowed to do so," Assistant attorney general Marvin L. White Jr. wrote for the state.

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