State supreme court upholds conviction for 2002 Havard murder trial

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 17, 2006

JACKSON &8212; The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld the conviction and death penalty sentencing of Adams County native Jeffrey Keith Havard.

An Adams County court convicted Havard of the capital murder of 6-month-old Chloe Britt in December 2002.

His appeal &8212; heard by the court Dec. 12 &8212; raised 14 issues including questions of ineffective assistance of counsel, trial court error, prosecutorial misconduct and a legally defective indictment.

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The Supreme Court issued an opinion last week finding all 14 claims to be without merit.

District Attorney Ronnie Harper &8212; who prosecuted the original case &8212; said the conviction affirmation was expected.

&8220;Certainly we were satisfied with the results,&8221; Harper said Wednesday. &8220;Of course you never know for sure what kind of problems might come up in a case, but in retrospect after the trial, we felt pretty comfortable with the record.&8221;

Harper was present for December&8217;s oral arguments before the Supreme Court but did not participate. An attorney for the state &8212; Melanie Dotson &8212; handled the appeal.

Chloe Britt died Feb. 21, 2002, from injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome. A pathologist also testified that Britt had injuries consistent with sexual battery.

Chloe, the daughter of Rebecca Britt, was living with Havard on Montgomery Road.

In the appeal, Havard&8217;s attorney argued his court-appointed attorney in the original case was ineffective because he allowed a juror with self-admitted bias to serve on the jury. The juror in question stated early on in the jury selection process that she had a relative who&8217;d been the victim of sexual assault, and the juror did not believe she could be fair about the topic.

Questioning proceeded, and the same juror answered multiple times that she could be fair and impartial, but the defense attorney never specifically questioned her about her previous comment about sexual assault. She was chosen for the jury.

The Supreme Court&8217;s opinion says they did not find the attorney&8217;s performance deficient and &8220;that Havard&8217;s conviction and subsequent death sentence were not the result of a breakdown in the adversary process which rendered the result of Havard&8217;s trial unreliable.&8221;

Other issues raised on appeal included the attorney&8217;s failure to ask jurors whether they would automatically vote for the death penalty and a statement the prosecution made in closing arguments that might have led some jurors to believe Havard had previously sexually assaulted Chloe.

There was also some debate about the way the court answered a jury question about a possible life sentence. The jury asked for the definition of a life sentence. Havard&8217;s appeal attorney said the response that acknowledged that future legislatures could change laws that would lead to Havard&8217;s release caused speculation of early release.

&8220;The statement of the trial judge was as general as possible, and there is absolutely no reason to believe the jury made its ultimate decision on the sentence based on this statement to the jury by the trial judge,&8221; the Supreme Court&8217;s opinion reads.

Another sentencing issue raised on appeal dealt with whether Havard was denied his constitutional right to a reliable sentence because the trial court allowed the jury to consider the sexual battery allegations to support the sentence of death. The court disagreed with the claim.

The court&8217;s opinion is nearly 30 pages long, with 10 more pages of notations.

Harper said this ruling is just the first round in the appeal process.

Havard can now ask the Mississippi Supreme Court to reconsider the case.

If that request is denied, he can request that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case. If they decide not to hear it, Havard can bring the case back to the state on post-conviction hearings. After that it can again go to the U.S. Supreme Court if they agree to hear it.

The process is likely to take a long time, Harper said.