NEW ORLEANS — Allegations of racial bias in jury selection should not have resulted in orders for a new trial for a woman convicted in a grisly double murder in 2004, an attorney for Mississippi authorities told a federal appeals court Tuesday.
Lisa Jo Chamberlin is white. But she challenged the prosecution’s striking of some black candidates from the jury that convicted her in the murders of Linda Heintzelman and Heintzelman’s boyfriend, Vernon Hulett.
Last March, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit court of appeals voted 2-1 to grant her a new trial, finding that there was evidence of discrimination against blacks in the selection of Chamberlin’s jury and that federal law therefore required reversal. The panel noted precedents holding that defendants can challenge the exclusion of jurors of another race.
The full 15-member appeals court in July agreed to the state’s request for a re-hearing. Fourteen participated in Tuesday’s hearing, where defense attorney Elizabeth Carlyle said the record showed prosecutors were more likely to eliminate black potential jurors than white ones.
The case wound up in federal courts after the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Arguments in briefs and in court sessions have been complex, with dueling statistical presentations and disagreements on how far prosecutors should have been required to go to prove they didn’t discriminate in choosing the jury.
“This argument today is proof that reasonable minds can differ,” Cameron Leigh Benton argued for the state.
There was no indication when the court would rule.
Fifth Circuit Judges Gregg Costa and Eugene Davis voted in March to grant Chamberlin a new trial. Judge Edith Brown Clement dissented.
Chamberlin had been sentenced to death in the murders of Heintzelman and Hulett — killings that Costa, in the March opinion, said were gruesome “even by the standards of capital cases.”
According to the court record, the victims were alleged to have been killed after they argued with Chamberlin and her then-boyfriend, Roger Gillett, at a home they all shared.
Hulett was hit in the head with a hammer and his throat was slashed. Heintzelman was abandoned after being strangled and stabbed. When her assailants returned to find he still breathing, she was suffocated with plastic bags. The bodies were stuffed in a freezer. Hulett was decapitated.
Gillett and Chamberlin were convicted in separate trials.