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Bell case returned to Forrest County
by Jack Elliott Jr.
Sep 23, 2013 | 216 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court is giving Charles Sylvester Bell a chance to argue that he can’t be tried twice for the same crime.

Bell says prosecutors used an armed robbery charge to support the pursuit of a death sentence. When the death sentence was overturned, Bell was re-sentenced to life in prison. Then, prosecutors indicted him separately for armed robbery, got a conviction and Bell was sentenced to 25 years as a habitual offender.

Bell calls it double jeopardy.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines double jeopardy as “the fact of being prosecuted or sentenced twice for substantially the same offense” — in this case, armed robbery.

Prosecutors say Bell waived his Fifth Amendment double jeopardy rights.

The state Supreme Court told a Forrest County judge to sort it out.

The Supreme Court says if the judge sides with prosecutors, he is to determine if Bell’s waiver of rights was constitutionally permissible. A ruling on a constitutional question would bring Bell back before the Supreme Court. It is a roundabout way to perhaps get a not unfamiliar issue settled conclusively.

Bell was originally sentenced to death in 1977 in the slaying of D.C. Haden, but that sentence was overturned by a federal appeals court in 1982.

In 1984, Bell pleaded guilty to a new indictment of armed robbery as a habitual offender to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to serve 25 years on that charge and life imprisonment for the capital murder conviction.

A Forrest County judge ruled in 2011 that Bell waited too long to file a post-conviction petition. The state Court of Appeals upheld the Forrest County judge’s decision last year.

Bell — in a handwritten 18-page brief — and prosecutors each cite the same case, Rowland v. State of Mississippi from 2010.

According to court records, Rowland pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery and to two counts of capital murder that occurred in 1979. In 2007, Rowland argued in a post-conviction petition that he should not have been convicted of armed robbery at the same time armed robbery was used by prosecutors to support the capital murder charges.

In 2012, the Supreme Court tossed out the robbery convictions in the decades-old capital murder case. It said Rowland was placed in double jeopardy when he was convicted of capital murder during the armed robberies of two people and separately for the armed robberies of the same two people.

“The remedy for such a double-jeopardy violation is to vacate the armed-robbery convictions and sentences,” wrote Justice Michael Randolph.

Bell says his appeal is a “mirror image” of Rowland’s and he should get the same consideration.

Prosecutors say the two cases are nothing alike.

“In Rowland, the record failed to reflect that Rowland had been advised of his constitutional rights, specifically his Fifth Amendment right against double jeopardy.

“In this case, this court has already determined ... that the trial court thoroughly questioned Bell regarding his desire to plead guilty and that his attorneys had advised him of his constitutional and statutory rights, which he waived. The court found that Bell pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty,” prosecutors said.

Bell argues “a plea of guilty does not waive double jeopardy.” He says double jeopardy is also an exception from the three-year limitation on the filing of post-conviction petitions.

“The double jeopardy issue is a fundamental Constitutional right ... and a claim of illegal sentence or denial of due process in sentencing also must be considered regardless of when it is raised,” Bell said. “Surely, this is cause enough to overcome a bar that should have been applied in the first place.”

(Daily Corinthian columnist Jack Elliott Jr. is a writer for the Associated Press based in Jackson.)
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