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Sunday focus: Half of 2018 murder cases still open

By ROBIN FITZGERALD &
SCOTT HAWKINS

NATCHEZ — Of the 12 murders committed in Natchez in 2018, six of those cases remain open, meaning no one has been arrested or charged with the murders, Natchez police officials said.

Open murder investigations from 2018 in Natchez include:

  • Damion Green, 23, who was killed of a gunshot wound to the lower chest during a Sept. 15 incident in which three men were shot at three different locations in the city. Green, the only fatality in that incident, was shot while at the Maryland Heights apartments.
  • Mitchell “Guitar Man” Brooks, 54, who police said died of a gunshot to the back on the morning of Oct. 17 as he rode his bicycle along Gaile Avenue. Brooks was known as the guitar man, because he carried an acoustic guitar case around with him.
  • Tavonte White, 23, of Natchez and Alisha Justice, 21, of Missouri City, Texas, who both died after being shot multiple times at approximately 4 a.m. Nov. 9 as they traveled on E. Franklin Street in a 2006 Honda Accord. The car stopped when it hit a brick wall in the parking lot of the Stewpot, officials said.
  • Makailuis L. Johnson, 18, was killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 15 after officials said he was shot multiple times with a high-powered rifle as he sat in his car on East Stiers Lane.
  • Don Owens, 29, who died after being shot while he was at an alley between two houses on W. Stiers Lane on the night of Dec. 17.

“With all of them,” Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong said, “we are awaiting results from the state crime lab.”

Indeed, state crime lab officials confirm the crime lab has a backlog of cases from throughout the state, including 31 firearms from Natchez dating back to 2017.

“We believe some of the evidence we have sent over … is going to give us some directions once we get the results,” Armstrong said, adding suspects have been identified in many of the open cases. “… We are on the crime lab’s time.”

The wait for crime lab results could take awhile, however, as crime lab officials say they are backed up on ballistics and autopsy reports.

Ballistics and other backlogs

The state crime lab currently has a backlog of 527 ballistics reports statewide including 31 firearms cases from Natchez, said Sam Howell, director of the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory.

A total of 51 cases from the Natchez Police Department are pending, Howell said.

The backlogs from Natchez include:

  • 31 firearms examinations in cases dating back to 2017 (category includes cases such as homicides and shooting into a dwelling).
  • Seven DNA cases.
  • Six gunshot residue cases.
  • Four trace examinations (fibers, glass, paint, etc.).
  • Two DUI cases from the past week.
  • One distance range determination from December (the distance between a weapon and a target).

“There was a time many years ago,” Armstrong said, “when you could bring something over (to the crime lab) and ask for a rush to be put on it and get some things back a little bit sooner, but the increasing violence, and the shortage of manpower at the lab, those days are pretty much over with. You can ask but you are not likely to get it.”

The backlog of ballistics cases stems from a shortage of manpower, Howell said, because the pay for such positions in Mississippi is $10,000 to $15,000 below the national average.

Autopsy reports

The state has two doctors who each perform an average of 400 homicide autopsies a year, and four firearms examiners with the backlog of 527 firearms cases, Howell said.

Autopsies in homicide cases take top priority over autopsies in other types of deaths, Howell said.

More than 1,000 completed autopsy reports are pending statewide, Howell said, including all types of deaths, and it is difficult for pathologists to find time to finish autopsy reports.

Preliminary autopsies have been performed in all 14 of the homicides in Adams County from 2018. Completed reports, however, Howell said, are on backlog.

For each case that goes to trial, Howell said, pathologists, firearms examiners and other forensic scientists must stop what they are doing to testify in courts across the state on their cases or cases previously investigated by those who no longer work for the state.

Typically, Howell said, it’s not an autopsy that’s the holdup in a criminal case.

“It depends on the complexity of the case, but a lot of questions are answered on a preliminary autopsy that’s performed within 24 hours of a body being received by the State Medical Examiner’s Office.”

Indeed, Armstrong said, autopsies can help link a death to a specific weapon.

“Once you get a weapon, and you’ve got a projectile out of a person’s body,” Armstrong said, “they are able to determine whether or not that weapon was used, so that is where we are with probably all of the open cases.”

Patience

With the backlog of cases at the state crime lab, Armstrong said his investigators have to be patient.

“Once you identify a suspect through investigation, through interviews or whatever,” Armstrong said, “before you can charge them, you have to have enough evidence to convince a judge to sign a warrant.”

Lacking physical evidence such as ballistic reports, Armstrong said investigators have to rely on individuals to step forward and report crimes and suspected crimes.

“In the solving of any crime, you have got to have an eyewitness,” Armstrong said, “you have got to have strong forensic evidence to make a connection or maybe a video camera. In the absence of all of those, it becomes very difficult.”

Armstrong said his investigators are often frustrated by a lack of cooperation from many witnesses in the area.

“What’s really mind boggling with us is to know that someone witnessed a crime … and are not willing to come forward,” Armstrong said. “As I have always said, we’re only as good as the community we serve.”

Promising developments

Armstrong said he is encouraged by last week’s announcement that Project EJECT is coming to Natchez.

The crime-fighting initiative is a partnership between the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District’s office, the Natchez Police Department, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

EJECT is an acronym for Empower Justice Expel Crime Together and with it the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District has assigned an assistant U.S. attorney just for Natchez and Adams County.

Armstrong said he is encouraged not only be the added manpower that added agents from the ATF will bring but also the resources of the federal office.

For instance, Armstrong said, federal agents can provide witness protection to secure witnesses until perpetrators are incarcerated.

“They can secure a witness until arrests are made,” Armstrong said.

Federal agencies also can pay up to $1,500 reward for information leading to arrests in cases.

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