Murder suspects walking freePublished 12:07am Tuesday, July 24, 2012
NATCHEZ — Paul M. Green and Lizzie Madison are no longer behind bars for the manslaughter sentences they were sentenced to serve last week.
That’s because — with the exception of the three years they served waiting for trial — the 20-year sentences both defendants were handed for the August 2009 killing of Clark Felton Jr. were suspended. Initial reports of the pleading, which were based on a news release from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, did not include the suspension of sentences.
Green and Madison were also sentenced to 10 years post-release supervision, five years of which would be informal supervision.
Felton, 61, was beaten to death during an apparent robbery at his LaGrange Road home. Investigators believed the victim’s own cane was used in the killing.
Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson handed down the sentences, and said the circumstances surrounding the sentencing were unusual. Madison and Green entered “best interest” pleas, in which a person does not admit guilt but acknowledges there is evidence from which they could be convicted at trial.
“I have been doing this for 18 years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have taken a best interest plea,” Johnson said.
“It is very unusual for me to take one of these pleas, but after conferring with attorneys on both sides, I felt like it was the proper thing to do in this case.”
At the heart of the matter was the fact that the prosecution did not have a strong case against the two.
“Basically, this was a situation where they had been in jail for a long period of time, and as I understand from the state, if it had gone to trial, it may not have been any conviction at trial,” Johnson said. “That’s an overriding shadow.”
District Attorney Ronnie Harper said the case had serious material deficiencies, and the strongest evidence was the testimony of a jailhouse snitch to whom Madison had allegedly admitted the commission of the crime.
“We had some serious concerns about how her credibility would be received,” Harper said. “The jury is actually instructed that they have to take the testimony (of prison informants) with great caution.”
The other evidence was that the two defendants — who were a couple at the time of the killing — could be placed in the LaGrange area on the night Felton was killed, and that they had apparently been trying to sell a bottle of whiskey that was the same brand as Felton was known to consume.
At one point Green had reportedly agreed to testify, but Harper said his testimony was that he was at best an accessory after the fact.
“(Green) was saying (Madison) went in, she came out with a cane and he didn’t know anything that went on inside,” Harper said.
The district attorney said that testimony also conflicted with the testimony of the jailhouse snitch.
By the time the case was set for trial, Green had apparently become reluctant to testify against Madison.
“It was a pretty empty case,” Harper said.
For that reason, it was a “true gift” that the two pleaded to manslaughter, Harper said.
“We don’t make decisions for lesser charges out of convenience or whether we want to try it,” he said. “With what we had, we were not optimistic we could get a guilty verdict in that case.”
“In light of what we had, I felt like that was an acceptable resolution to the case.”
The district attorney’s office does not offer sentencing recommendations for criminal pleas, Harper said.
“Courts are not bound on that (recommendation), they can do whatever they deem appropriate in a case,” he said.
“The judge was aware of the problems we had with this case.”
Johnson said he does not have sentencing guidelines for such matters, only statutory maximum and minimum penalties, and that he considers an individual’s prior criminal records, their age and the extent of their involvement in a crime. In this case, the best interest plea and the defendants’ non-admission of guilt was one of those factors, he said.
“If I had had a situation where somebody had come in and admitted what they had done, I wouldn’t hesitate on a case like that to give them 20 years to serve,” he said.
“The evidence pointed to their being involved, but neither were willing to give statements against the other, so while (the sentence) was not something that leaves a good taste in your mouth, it was practical.”