COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: PIKE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/05/2012. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. MICHAEL M. TAYLOR. TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: RODNEY TIDWELL, ROBERT BYRD, PAUL LUCKETT.
FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER, BY: GEORGE T. HOLMES.
FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, BY: JEFFREY A. KLINGFUSS, JOHN R. HENRY, JR.
KITCHENS, JUSTICE. WALLER, C.J., DICKINSON, P.J., LAMAR, KING AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR. PIERCE, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY RANDOLPH, P.J., AND CHANDLER, J.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI
NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY
¶1. LeDarius Bonds was convicted of murder by a jury in the Pike County Circuit Court in April 2012 and sentenced to life in prison. Bonds appeals his conviction, arguing that the trial court erred in admitting Exhibit 39, a gruesome photograph that he contends was more prejudicial than probative, and that the trial court erred in allowing a jury instruction which informed the jury that it could infer malice from the use of a deadly weapon. Finding that Exhibit 39 was far more prejudicial than probative, we reverse the conviction and remand for a new trial.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
¶2. The facts are taken from the Court of Appeals opinion.
LaJeremy Seabron went missing on August 27, 2010, after giving Bonds, his co-worker at the Sanderson Farms plant, a ride after work. After Seabron went missing, the police department received a call from Bonds, who told them that he was being threatened at work by Seabron's friends about Seabron's disappearance. Bonds initially told police that he did receive a ride home from Seabron, but he had not seen Seabron since then. On September 1, 2010, a burned vehicle registered to Seabron's mother was discovered. The following day, Seabron's decomposing body was discovered several miles away from the burned vehicle. An autopsy showed that Seabron died from a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.
On September 3, 2010, investigators interviewed Bonds. During this interview, Bonds told the investigators that Seabron was a member of a local gang. Bonds had repeatedly declined Seabron's invitations to join the gang, which according to Bonds, resulted in Seabron threatening to kill Bonds and calling him a snitch. Bonds further told the investigators that the men had worked out their differences. Bonds admitted that Seabron had given him a ride home after work on August 27, 2010, but Bonds stated that he had not seen him since that time, even though Seabron had planned to return to Bonds's apartment.
After investigators questioned this version of events, Bonds then told another version involving another car stopping them on the way home from work. The individuals in the other car took Seabron at gunpoint and threatened to kill Bonds or someone in his family. Bonds again changed his story. In this next version, Seabron pulled over on the roadside and told Bonds he wanted him to see something. According to Bonds, Seabron then approached him from behind and cocked a gun. A struggle ensued, and
the gun discharged. Bonds was able to gain possession of the gun and shot Seabron in the back of the head. He then told investigators that he left Seabron in the automobile, but came back a day or two later to remove Seabron's body and move and burn the automobile. This portion of the story again changed to Bonds leaving Seabron on the ground after shooting him, driving the automobile away, hiding the gun, and then burning the automobile at another location. Bonds also led investigators to Seabron's gun, which he claimed he hid in a vacant house after the incident. The gun, with a pearl-like handle, was recovered in the vacant house, and it had one spent shell casing and five live rounds. No fingerprints or ballistic data was able to be obtained from the gun or the bullet fragments recovered from Seabron's skull.
Several days later, Bonds requested to speak to investigators yet again. He changed his version of the events again. This time, Bonds stated that during the struggle, he was able to force Seabron's arm behind his back. This position put Seabron's hand holding the gun facing toward the back of Seabron's head. The gun discharged, shooting Seabron in the back of the head.
Bonds was indicted by a Pike County grand jury on May 5, 2011, for the murder of Seabron in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19 (Rev. 2006). His jury trial began on April 3, 2012, and ended on April 5, 2012, with the jury finding him guilty of the murder of Seabron. In addition to Bonds's statements he made to the investigators, the jury heard testimony from several witnesses, including Bonds's roommate at the time, Brandon Hall. Hall testified that he usually gave Bonds rides to and from work; however, on August 27, 2010, Bonds told him he did not need a ride home from work that day because Seabron was going to give him a ride home. Hall also testified that when Bonds came home later that day, Bonds asked him to tell people that the last time he saw Bonds and Seabron together was at 4:30 p.m. on August 27, 2010. This was an untrue statement. According to Hall's testimony, Bonds told him that he had dumped Seabron's body and burned the car. Lastly, Hall testified that Bonds moved out of their apartment shortly after Seabron went missing. As Bonds was moving out, Hall said he had seen Bonds throw a gun over a fence near their apartment, and he had also seen a gun with a pearl-like handle in Bonds's room a few days before Seabron went missing.
In addition, the State presented the jury with several crime-scene photographs depicting the decomposing body of Seabron. Bonds's attorney objected to the introduction of the photographs. The circuit court overruled the objection and allowed several pictures into evidence; however, it also sustained the objection as to some pictures prohibiting their introduction into evidence.
After deliberations, the jury found Bonds guilty of the murder of Seabron. The circuit court sentenced Bonds to life in the custody of the MDOC. ...