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Cory Maye Freed After 10 Years In Prison: The Back Story

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CORYMAYE
Radley Balko

MONTICELLO, Miss. -- It's Friday, July 1, 2011, a little past 8:15 a.m. when I arrive at the Lawrence County, Mississippi, courthouse. As I walk toward the building, I run into Dorothy Maye, the mother of Cory Maye. She's beaming.

"I thought you'd be wearing a smile today, Miss Dorothy," I say. She gives me a quick but firm embrace. She scolded me years ago when I tried to shake her hand. "I don't shake," she said. "I hug." Later this morning, she expects to hear Judge Prentiss Harrell tell the courtroom that after 9 and a half years in prison -- including two on death row and another three in Parchman Penitentiary's notoriously violent Unit 32 -- her son will soon be coming home.

Cory Maye, now 30, was convicted in 2004 of shooting and killing Prentiss, Mississippi, police officer Ron Jones, Jr. during a botched drug raid on Maye's home on the day after Christmas in 2001. Maye says he was asleep as the raid began at 12:30 a.m. and had no idea the men breaking into his home were police. The police say they announced themselves. Maye had no prior criminal record, and police found all of a marijuana roach in his apartment, which under other circumstances would garner a $100 fine.

In fact, the man who lived next door to Maye in that bright yellow duplex, Jamie Smith, already had drug charges pending against him and appears to have been the actual target of the police action that night. The police found a significant supply of drugs in Smith's apartment, though Smith has never been tried.

Dorothy Maye and I walk into the building, up a flight of worn wooden stairs, and through a security checkpoint to enter the second-story courtroom. Maye is expected to plead guilty to culpable negligence manslaughter this morning, a much less severe charge than the capital murder rap for which he was originally convicted and sentenced to death. If all goes to plan, he'll be sentenced to 10 years in prison, with credit for the years he has already served. With time for good behavior, he should be released as soon as the Mississippi Department of Corrections can get through processing and paperwork, which his attorneys hope will take no more than a week to 10 days.

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The courtroom looks new, or at least recently renovated, a contrast to the groaning old building that holds it. The walls are a pastel shade of blue, and the judge's chair, bench and witness stand newly-finished oak. High-set windows with horizontal shades let in a portion of the warm Mississippi morning.

There will be no suspense today. No tense, pregnant silences as the courtroom awaits a verdict, as happened in 2004, when a Marion County jury declared Maye guilty and again less than an hour later, when the same jury condemned Maye to die. Nor will there be any exalted cries of "Thank you, Jesus!" like the one that burst from the normally-reserved Dorothy Maye's lips 2006, when Judge Michael Eubanks unexpectedly threw out Maye's death sentence. Eubanks ruled that the sentencing portion of Maye's trial was marred by mistakes made by Rhonda Cooper, Maye's trial attorney.

Instead, this morning's proceedings are scripted in the plea agreement hashed out by Maye's attorneys and Hal Kittrell, the district attorney for Mississippi's 15th Judicial District. Maye's attorneys began reaching out to Kittrell almost immediately after the Mississippi State Supreme Court granted Maye a new trial last December. The court ruled that Maye should have been permitted to argue at trial that he was defending the life of his daughter on the night of the raid, a defense Eubanks had denied him. It also upheld a lower court ruling that Maye should have been permitted to return his trial to Jefferson Davis County, the scene of the raid, after Cooper inexplicably asked to move it to a county with less favorable demographics.

Shorty after Maye's mother and I take our seats in the gallery, Maye attorney Bob Evans enters from the witness room at the back of the courtroom. The avuncular Evans, 61, is the Lawrence County public defender. He was once the public defender for Prentiss as well (in many areas of rural Mississippi, public defender is a part-time position -- it pays a few thousand dollars per year). Evans was terminated from that position when he agreed to represent Maye on appeal -- an act of retribution and intimidation that was very likely illegal. (Evans got his vindication: He now represents District 91 in the Mississippi legislature, a district that includes Prentiss.)

Evans was initially assigned to Maye's case in 2001, immediately after the raid. But Maye's family instinctively recoiled at entrusting their son's fate to a public defender. That would prove to be a mistake. Instead, they pooled their resources to hire Cooper, a black attorney in Jackson who they say played to their (well-founded) racial insecurities about the case. Contrary to what Maye's family says she told them, Cooper had no experience trying a capital case, a deficiency that was more than apparent at Maye's trial.

Evans is a character. When I first met him in 2005, he boasted that he was probably the only white man in the county with "Impeach Bush" and "Hillary Clinton for President" bumper stickers on his truck. But then, he also has an office full of hunting trophies ... and an office drawer full of guns. He spills out southern aphorisms and droll asides, all with the morbid sense of humor you often see in public defenders. It's a coping mechanism. This particular morning, after representing Maye in his plea, Evans will also represent a 60-year-old woman charged with sexual abuse in the death of her 4-month-old granddaughter. Both fearless and disarming, Evans is known almost as much for his mouth as for his lawyering. He'll dash off biting comments in awkward situations, usually masked with just enough humor to keep things from getting uncomfortable.

This morning, Evans is flustered. His hair is disheveled; his shirt rumpled. He's clearly stressed. "I didn't sleep at all last night," he says. "I know, I know. I sound like some menopausal woman. I'm emotional. I'm cynical. I'm too negative. But I'm not going to be able to exhale until I hear Judge Harrell accept this plea." Evans hands me a copy of the plea agreement. "I've never written an agreement like this," he says. "I must have written this thing seven or eight times."

It took a delicate dance of negotiation to get to this point. Maye's attorneys first reached out to Kittrell shortly after the Mississippi Supreme Court decision in December. Kittrell initially assured the press he would again try Maye for capital murder.
But the negotiations started to pick up momentum over the last few weeks, with Kittrell and his assistants both working with Maye's attorneys and relaying options back to the family of Jones, the slain police officer. Kittrell and the Jones family wanted some assurance that once a formal plea was offered, Maye would accept it, giving the family some closure. The priority for Maye's attorneys was getting Maye home, with no post-release supervision.

"We didn't want him under some sort of supervisory situation, where it would be easy for somebody with a grudge to set him up and put him right back in prison," Evans says. Kittrell's office first offered a 20-year sentence, with 10 years time served, and 10 years of probation. Maye's attorneys rejected that offer. The two reached an agreement just days before this morning's proceedings, and once both sides agreed, held a conference with Harrell in Purvis, Mississippi, less than 24 hours ago to see if he'd sign off on the deal. He said he would

Harrell doesn't usually agree to plea bargains that include a predetermined sentence. There's a small chance he could have changed his mind since yesterday and may reject the deal this morning. It's only a small chance, but this is what has Evans worried.

Evans invites me back to the witness room with Maye and Ben Vernia, another of Maye's attorneys. Vernia got involved in 2006 as an associate at Covington & Burling, the high-powered Washington, D.C. law firm that took on Maye's case pro bono. Vernia has since started his own practice, but hestill works on Maye's case pro bono. Maye's other primary attorney is Abe Pafford, who also started the case while at Covington, but also remained with Maye after moving on to start his own practice. It was Pafford who first brought Covington on board after reading about Maye's case on my blog from a link at National Review Online. Pafford has a daughter the same age as Maye's, and said he was moved to get involved after thinking about what he'd have done if he'd been in Maye's position.

This morning, Cory Maye is wearing the standard-issue inmate attire at the Lawrence County jail, where he was transferred after the Mississippi Supreme Court decision in December: a short-sleeved, bright-orange v-neck top and baggy pants with wide stripes that alternate white and orange. He's wearing orange, rubber shower sandals; his feet are chained at the ankles. As I walk in, he's stretching his thin goatee yet thinner with a broad grin. Ask anyone about Maye, and they'll mention that grin. Maye always smiles, even when a smile may not be the most appropriate expression. Evans says he was smiling throughout his trial, which probably didn't help him with the jury. He was even smiling when he was sentenced to death.

"So what are you thinking this morning?" I ask. "I imagine there's a lot going through your mind."

"I'm just ready to get home to my family and see my kids," Maye says. "I want to take them fishing. Maybe take them to Sea World or Disneyland."

Maye's clutching a hand-written statement he'll give later this morning. It's a message for the family of Ron Jones. Between my questions, he glances back down at it. There are signs of revision, words and phrases crossed out, new words written in the spaces between. It has the look of something he's labored over.

"Be as deferential and respectful as you always are," Evans tells him. "You can be a little timid when you speak. Make sure you speak up so the Joneses can hear you."

Maye says he knows that Southern Mississippi may not be safe for him long-term, a sentiment shared by his legal team. He says at the moment he's thinking of moving to Florida. He has become pen pals with a woman who lives there, and there may be some romantic interest. It's far enough to get him away from any lingering anger about his case, but close enough to allow him to still see his kids and his family. We chat about work. He says he knows he needs to get a job soon. He's interested in getting his commercial driving license. And we chat about food. He wants his first meal outside of prison to be his mother's gumbo, with a side of her banana pudding.

"There's going to be a big party when this is done," Evans says. "You'll get to eat all you want."

HuffPost readers: Find out how you can help Cory Maye. Click through to the final page for a short documentary on the Cory Maye case.

THE PLEA

I return to the courtroom gallery, which now hums with whispers of prosecutors, clerks and the deputies working security. This was a high-profile case, but neither side wanted a spectacle this morning. I'm the only journalist present for Maye's plea. The parents of the late Officer Ron Jones, Jr. have now arrived. They're sitting in the back. Jones' father, Ron Jones, Sr., was the Prentiss police chief at the time of his son's death. Jones is also survived by two brothers, one of them his twin. More friends and family of Maye's have arrived as well. They gather around Maye's mother, just a few rows ahead.

The courtroom is instructed to rise as Judge Harrell enters and takes his seat. He's bald on top, graying on the sides and reads through glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Maye's plea is the first item on the docket.

Maye's road out of prison begins with a series of formalities. In a firm but warm tone, Harrell asks Maye's name, his age, his level of education, and whether he's happy with his attorneys. "Yes, sir," Maye answers.

Harrell then lays out the plea, and asks several times in several different ways if Maye understands and accepts the terms of the agreement. "Yes, sir," Maye says.

Harrell then turns to the prosecution to ask if they're still amenable to the plea. Kittrell then reads a statement that for Maye, his attorneys and his supporters is one of the more satisfying moments of the last 10 years. Kittrell says that the state's decision to agree to a lesser charge came not only in response to the decision from the Mississippi Supreme Court, but in light of "new evidence" that had come out in recent years. The lesser charge of manslaughter, Kittrell says, "is in the best interests of the state, and of the family." The "new evidence" isn't something Kittrell had to elaborate on. It is a suggestion, albeit indirect, that the original capital murder charge for which Maye was convicted and sentenced to die ... was excessive.

With that, Harrell looks at Maye. "This is it," Harrell says. "This is finality. The fourth quarter. The ninth inning." He asks one more time if Maye understands that he's pleading guilty to a felony and if he is willing to accept the consequences of such a plea. "Yes, sir," Maye replies. Harrell accepts the plea. Bob Evans exhales. Harrell then asks if Maye would like to make a statement prior to sentencing. Maye says he would.

Once Harrell formally accepted the plea agreement, he was bound by that agreement to administer the 10 year sentence. Maye's plea was contingent on that. So not only does the agreement not require Maye to give a statement, his statement also isn't an attempt to win mercy from Harrell. Maye's sentence is set. He now knows he'll soon be going home. What all of that means, then, is that Maye's statement is a genuine act of contrition.

Reading slowly and nervously from the paper, Maye says he's "deeply sorry" for Jones' death. He apologizes for the pain he has caused the Jones family. He says he never had any intention of hurting anyone, and that he has "shed many tears, and said many prayers for Mr. Ron and the Jones family." He concludes, "I hope we can forgive and all move forward and begin to heal." Harrell then sentences Maye to 10 years, with credit for the time he has already served.

In the gallery, two mothers begin to weep. Kittrell casts a long, sorrowed look at Jones' parents. Jones' mother slowly shakes her head from side to side. Dorothy Maye bows her head. Cory Maye's aunt strokes her back. Maye is ushered through the gallery to the witness room. The court moves on to the next case.

STILL MOURNING

A few moments later, I return to the witness room, expecting Maye to be jubilant with thoughts of his pending freedom. He isn't. He's holding tissues, wiping tears from his eyes. The ever-present grin is gone. I ask what's on his mind. He starts to answer, but he can't. Evans, Maye, Vernia and I sit for a few moments in silence.

"I don't think I've ever seen you without a smile for this long," Evans says. "You're pensive, aren't you?"

Maye shakes his head in the affirmative.

"You're thinking about Ron, aren't you? About the Jones family?"

May nods, and drops his head into his hands.

Ron Jones, Jr. was well liked and respected in this community, even by blacks -- something that cannot often be said of white police officers here. Maye himself knew and respected Jones. They weren't too far apart in age. Since the raid, he always refers to Jones as "Mr. Ron," a sign of respect in this part of the south.

"I can't tell you how many times that happens," Evans would later tell me. "He grieves for them."

I had planned to record a video interview with Maye today. I've been writing and reporting on his case for five years, and the many people who have been pulling for him over the years would love to hear from him. But it seems clear that he's in no condition to talk. Maye certainly still believes his actions the night of the raid on his home were justified. But now, nearly 10 years later, moments after he has finally won his freedom, he can't permit himself to be happy. He still killed a man -- a man he respected, a man he would later learn meant no harm the night all this happened. He knows he still gave the Jones family grief. And it clearly still weighs him down.

Cory Maye is still mourning Ron Jones, and likely will for the rest of his life.

JOY, IF NOT JUSTICE

Evans has other cases this morning, so I leave the courtroom to file a story from the public library, as Maye is transferred back to the Lawrence County Jail. A couple hours later, Evans, Vernia, and I arrive at the jail to visit again with Maye. An attendant asks Evans what he needs.

"I'm here to see my client," Evans says. "Cory," he clarifies, though everyone knows.

"It'll be just a minute," the attendant says, then pauses. "I need to get someone to let you in."

"I thought you were going to tell me you hadn't finished beating him yet," Evans deadpans.

There's nervous laughter. Like most of Evans' cracks, there's a kernel of truth to the joke. Maye claims he was beaten shortly after the raid on his home. He was taken to a jail in Forrest County, in part because Sheriff Henry McCullum was worried about what might happen to him if he were left in Jefferson Davis County. Maye's family wasn't permitted to see him for more than a week, time enough, they allege, for his injuries to heal. Maye's brother told a local paper at the time that he was still bleeding from an ear when they were finally allowed to visit him.

We meet in a room in the jail. Maye, now unshackled, is in better spirits. Evans has brought him a sandwich from Subway. Maye peels off the orange prison shirt, revealing the "C-No" tattoo that wraps around the right side of his neck.

When I first began writing about Maye's case in 2005, the story quickly went viral around the web after a link from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit. Within a couple days, I received an email from Claiborne "Buddy" McDonald, the DA who brought the charges against Maye, and who won Maye's conviction and death sentence. One of the things McDonald told me about Maye that wasn't in the trial transcripts was that Maye had tattoos. (This apparently was supposed to persuade me of Maye's guilt.) One, on his left arm, read "high life." (Maye has never denied that he occasionally smoked pot -- he has denied that he was a dealer.) The other is the "C-No" tattoo, a childhood nickname that stuck with Maye through the years. As the story goes, when he was a boy, a neighbor gave Maye a $100 bill in exchange for some help Maye had given him around the house. Maye had never seen a bill that large before, and so he triumphantly paraded it around the neighborhood. It earned him the nickname "C-Note," later abbreviated to "C-No."

In the jail, Maye pulls out a two-page letter and hands it to me. He has written it in the two hours since he left the courthouse. It's addressed to the people who have supported him over the years, nearly all of whom he's never met. "I didn't want you to be mad at me for not doing the video," he says. "I don't want anyone to think I don't appreciate their support."

Maye's pending freedom feels like justice, but there's something appropriate about his reluctance to fully embrace it. It's true that this is about the best outcome he could hope for. As Pafford pointed out in a phone call, it appears to be the first case in Mississippi history in which a man was convicted of killing a police officer and will live to talk about it outside the walls of a prison. And there's certainly no question that there's much to be celebrated about Maye's freedom, about his mother getting back her son, about his kids getting back their father. But Maye lost 10 years of his life. His girlfriend at the time and the mother of his daughter, with whom he had just moved into that duplex two weeks prior to the raid, has since, understandably, moved on. In a part of the country where fathers -- particularly the fathers of poor children -- often go missing, Maye's kids lost a doting, loving father for the most important years of their childhood. Crueler yet, Maye was separated from his kids for doing exactly what a father is supposed to do: He protected his daughter from harm. Of course, the Jones family also lost a son and a brother. And Prentiss, Mississippi, lost a good cop.

And still, the cause of all of this pain, the "drug war" -- a metaphor that's increasingly literal -- marches on. As do the increasingly militaristic tactics police departments use to fight it. At least 11 innocent people have been killed in drug raids since the December 26, 2001 raid on Maye's home. At least nine more nonviolent drug offenders have been killed. At least 17 police officers have been shot, four of them fatally. There have been dozens of other mistaken raids on the wrong home, as well as over-the-top raids on medical marijuana clinics and doctors' offices suspected of over-prescribing painkillers. Just last month police in Hampton, Virginia, shot and killed 69-year-old William Cooper during a drug raid on Cooper's home. Police had received a tip that Cooper was selling prescription drugs. When they forced their way in, Cooper pulled a gun, and they killed him. They found two bottles of prescription painkillers, hardly unusual for a man who suffered from arthritis, heart ailments and a number of other medical conditions.

Cory Maye will soon have a homecoming party. He'll get to hug his kids and eat his mother's cooking. But he'll always carry the unimaginable burden of having killed a man he knew and respected. Unless we rethink the idea that sending armed men to break into homes in the middle of the night is an acceptable way for the government to prevent people from getting high, there will be more Cory Mayes, more Ron Joneses, more William Coopers.

As Maye himself put it in a letter to a supporter in 2006: "We as citizens sit back and say, 'Well, this could never happen to me.' But it's happened before. And if we don't take a stand, it's gonna continue to happen to others."

Around the Web

Cory Maye - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Case of Cory Maye - Reason Magazine

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Ex-Miss. death row inmate pleads, to be freed soon

Cory Maye - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Case of Cory Maye - Reason Magazine

Life After Death

Ex-Miss. death row inmate pleads, to be freed soon

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