Defense attorney: Confession coerced, cannot support conviction in Mississippi sheriff's death

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JACKSON, Mississippi — A confession used to convict a Lucedale man in the death of a Mississippi sheriff was coerced by investigators who took advantage of Christopher Lee Baxter's mental illness, a defense attorney argued to the Mississippi Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Baxter is seeking a new trial in the death of George County Sheriff Garry Welford. Welford, 62, was struck by a pickup truck in which Baxter and his girlfriend, Brandy Nicole Williams, were fleeing from authorities on July 21, 2010.

Baxter's attorney Stacy L. Ferraro told the Supreme Court that investigators also took advantage of Baxter's desire to protect Williams.

Baxter and Williams were convicted in 2012 of capital murder. Each was sentenced to life without parole. Williams did not testify at Baxter's trial.

In each case, there were conflicting statements over who was driving the truck.

At Baxter's trial in May 2012, a circuit judge allowed his confession to be entered as evidence over defense objections. Records show Baxter told law enforcement officers that he was driving the truck. The judge found the confession was voluntary.

In September, a circuit judge barred Baxter's confession from Williams' trial. Defense attorneys said Baxter's statement was self-incriminating and had been used by prosecutors against Baxter in his trial. Prosecutors said the statement was not trustworthy and did not exonerate Williams' from any responsibility.

The state Court of Appeals ruled last December that Baxter's statement was important to Williams' defense and the circuit judge's decision denied her a fair trial. The Appeals Court ordered a new trial.

Ferraro said Baxter's mental disability was established at his trial and it was well-established in previous cases that mentally disabled people make false statements.

"The officers fed him information. He changed his story to please them. He made changes in his statement to go with what the officers were telling him," Ferraro said.

Special Assistant Attorney General Elliott Flaggs told the Supreme Court that Baxter's statement was freely given to investigators and Baxter said he understood his rights.

Flaggs said Williams' attorney wanted to use the confession to support Williams' claim of innocence. He said prosecutors opposed its use in her trial.

He said that while Baxter's mental disability made him ineligible for the death penalty, there is nothing in the law specifying that having a mental disability makes a confession involuntary and inadmissible.

Flaggs said regardless of whether Baxter or Williams was driving, both are equally guilty of Welford's death.

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