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Chamberlin v. Fisher

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division

March 31, 2015

MARSHALL L. FISHER, Commissioner, Department of Corrections, and JIM HOOD, Attorney General, Respondents.


CARLTON W. REEVES, District Judge.

Lisa Jo Chamberlin was convicted of two counts of capital murder, with the underlying offense of robbery, in the Circuit Court of Forrest County. The victims were Vernon Hulitt and Linda Heintzelman, who lived in Hattiesburg and were killed on or about March 20, 2004. Chamberlin's trial began on July 31, 2006, and, on August 4, 2006, she was found guilty on both counts of capital murder and sentenced to death. Chamberlin appealed the verdict and sentence, both of which were affirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Chamberlin v. State, 989 So.2d 320 (Miss. 2008). She then filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which was also denied. Chamberlin v. State, 55 So.3d 1046 (Miss. 2011). Chamberlin timely filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in this Court on July 18, 2011.


Lisa Jo Chamberlin was born and raised in Oregon, which is where she met Roger Gillett. Chamberlin and Gillett soon moved in together, and they lived in Oregon for several months. Gillett had family in Russell, Kansas, and he and Chamberlin moved there for some period of time. During that time, Kansas law enforcement became aware that the couple might be manufacturing crystal meth, and an investigation began. Around the beginning of March 2004, however, before any warrants could be served, Gillett and Chamberlin moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Near the end of March, Kansas authorities learned that Chamberlin and Gillett were back in Russell, and the Sheriff's Department set up surveillance on a farm about sixteen miles out of town that belonged to one of Gillett's relatives. On March 29, Gillett and Chamberlin were taken into custody on drug charges. Chamberlin was questioned later that day, and she originally said that she thought she should ask for an attorney. While discussing that issue with the officer, she agreed to talk, and she gave him some identification information. She signed a form acknowledging her rights, but then she declined to answer questions.

As part of the drug investigation, deputies obtained a search warrant for the farm. In addition to drug-related material or equipment, they were looking for a stolen white pickup, similar to one that a neighbor had reported seeing on the property. During their search, deputies found a white pickup truck with Mississippi tags inside a metal building. The deputies also entered a wooden granary, where they found a freezer that was plugged in and taped shut. Fearing that the freezer contained dangerous material for making meth, deputies backed out of the granary and waited for other agents to arrive.

When those other agents arrived and opened the freezer, they found something far worse than expected - a male body wrapped in a brown blanket. Immediately, they obtained another warrant to search the farm for evidence of a homicide. The body was pulled out of the freezer, and a female body was discovered underneath. The female body was frozen in fluid at the bottom of the freezer, and that fluid had to be thawed before the body could be removed. The bodies were ultimately identified as Vernon Hulett and Linda Heintzelman. Hulett had been decapitated and his arms had been severed at the shoulders. Heintzelman had duct tape wrapped around her mouth and head. A plastic bag was affixed to her head by duct tape wrapped around her neck. Her hands were secured at the small of her back with duct tape.

Following this discovery, officers interviewed Chamberlin again. This interview was not videotaped; however, Special Agent Delbert Hawell made a report of the interrogation. Later, officers interviewed Chamberlin once more to clear up some inconsistencies between her statement and the evidence, and a report was also made of that interview. Two additional videotaped interviews followed. In the first of these two, Chamberlin told how she and Gillett got to Hattiesburg, but, when she began to relate the events of the evening of the murders, she was overcome by emotion and could not give any more information. In the second, she gave a full statement of the events that culminated in the deaths of Hulett and Heintzelman. In each interview, Chamberlin was progressively more forthcoming about her own involvement in those events, and from those interviews, as well as evidence and testimony presented at trial, the Court has ascertained the facts that follow.[1]

Chamberlin and Gillett moved to Hattiesburg in early March 2004 to live with Gillett's cousin, Vernon Hulett, and Vernon's girlfriend, Linda Heintzelman. Hulett worked for the City of Hattiesburg's Sanitation Department. Gillett obtained "day jobs" through a job center. Neither Heintzelman nor Chamberlin worked. A few days after Gillett and Chamberlin arrived, the two couples were driving to the Gulf Coast in their separate vehicles when Heintzelman suddenly changed lanes in front of them, causing Gillett to run into her. Gillett and Chamberlin's car was severely damaged and could not safely be driven. Heintzelman's pickup sustained only minor damage. Heintzelman told Gillett and Chamberlin that she would submit the accident as a claim on her insurance and give them part of the money to fix their vehicle. Apparently, the claim was never made, and it became a matter of contention between the couples.

After some time in Hattiesburg, the relationship between the couples soured. One day, after all four of them had been drinking, Hulett and Heintzelman suggested that Gillett and Chamberlin move out. The tension caused Chamberlin and Gillett to argue, and, finally, Chamberlin left the house, intending to hitchhike to Oregon. She got a ride to a truck stop one to two hours away. Unable to find another ride, Chamberlin began walking back toward Hattiesburg, and she ultimately got a ride back. When she entered the house, everyone was arguing. Hulett was accusing Gillett of hitting Chamberlin in his house, although Chamberlin said that was not the case.

Chamberlin wanted to load their things into their car and leave, but Gillett wanted to stay the night. Chamberlin went into the kitchen and got two beers from the refrigerator, but Hulett grabbed her and told her that she could not have them. At that point, Gillett picked up Heintzelman and slammed her onto the kitchen counter. Gillett instructed Chamberlin to get his gun from under the mattress in the bedroom, which she did. Gillett then fired the gun into the floor, and, during the commotion, got the keys to the pickup from Heintzelman. Chamberlin went outside to pull the telephone wires from the house, so that Hulett could not call police, but Gillett had already cut them. Chamberlin took the gun outside and fired a shot at the truck tires, but Gillett came outside and told her not to shoot out the tires of their "getaway car." She brought the gun back into the house with one bullet in it.

Gillett then began to beat Hulett, trying to get the combination to a safe that Hulett kept in his closet. Hulett refused to reveal the combination, so Gillett instructed Chamberlin to go into the bedroom with Heintzelman and retrieve the safe. At that point, Chamberlin wanted to burn the house down and leave, so she lit the gas heater in the bedroom, but Gillett came in and turned it off. Heintzelman could not remember the combination to the safe, and said that only Vernon's mother knew it. Hulett ultimately told them the combination, although they were never able to open the safe using it. In a rage over the damage to her car, Chamberlin went through the house, turning over dressers and the refrigerator.

Gillett continued to beat Hulett until Hulett finally went to his bedroom, saying that he had worked hard that day and was tired. At around 1:30 a.m., Chamberlin took Heintzelman's truck to buy beer before the 2:00 a.m. cut-off. She was unsuccessful in that attempt and returned to the house about an hour later. Hulett was still in bed, and Heintzelman was bent over the safe with her pants off. Gillett had a couple of beers he had found under the refrigerator. Chamberlin asked him whether he had sex with Heintzelman, and he said that he had made her undress in order to "break" her, and that he had penetrated her with a beer bottle. Chamberlin went to the kitchen and got a piece of chicken. After she ate it, she told Heintzelman to insert the chicken bone into her anus, which Heintzelman did.

Hulett came back out of his bedroom and told Heintzelman not to open the safe, but they all sat in the dark while Heintzelman tried to pick the lock. Finally, Chamberlin told Gillett that they should "kill them and get this over with and get the fuck out of here." At Gillett's request, Chamberlin retrieved a box knife from Hulett's tool room; however, when Hulett sat down in his chair, Gillett hit him in the head with a hammer. Heintzelman still would not open the safe, so Gillett instructed Chamberlin to strangle her. She grabbed Heintzelman's windpipe, but Heintzelman was too strong for Chamberlin to choke her. Chamberlin got a knife from the kitchen so Gillett could stab Heintzelman, and Gillett told Chamberlin to wait out in the truck while he did it. When she went back in the house, she saw that Hulett was bloody and that Heintzelman was lying on the floor. Both of them were still breathing. Chamberlin then tried to open the safe, but was unsuccessful. Frustrated, she asked Gillett, "Are you going to kill them or not?" Gillett indicated that he would. While Chamberlin was loading their belongings into the pickup truck, Gillett slashed Hulett's throat.

Gillett told Chamberlin, "It's done, " and they left in the pickup truck, with Chamberlin driving. Gillett threw the hammer and the knife out of the truck onto the highway. After driving for an hour or two, at around daybreak, they returned to the house to "finish what we started." When they returned, Hulett appeared to be dead in the chair, but Heintzelman was on the floor, still breathing. Gillett said, "I'm glad we came back." He showed Chamberlin Hulett's slashed throat, then they covered both of them with blankets and went in their bedroom to sleep. Chamberlin could not stay in the house and went to sleep in her car around 6:30 or 7:30 a.m. After about three hours, Chamberlin went back in the house to find Gillett on the sofa and Heintzelman on the floor, still breathing. Chamberlin and Gillett went out into the front yard, where they spent most of the day.

Heintzelman was clinging to life, so Chamberlin suggested to Gillett that they strangle or smother her. When Gillett asked how they would do it, Chamberlin suggested putting a bag over Heintzelman's head. She gathered some plastic bags from around the house, and, when Heintzelman began to struggle, they bound her hands behind her back with duct tape. Gillett asked Chamberlin whether she'd rather hold Heintzelman's head or put the bag over it, and Chamberlin said she would put the bag on. Then Gillett lifted Heintzelman's head, so that Chamberlin could put the bag over it. He told Chamberlin, "I can't do this by myself, " but, at that point, Chamberlin said she could not help him. Gillett put the first bag over Heintzelman's head, and Chamberlin helped with the other two bags. Heintzelman began making noises and they were afraid a neighbor would hear her, so Gillett put a pillow over Heintzelman's head and smothered her. Chamberlin went outside for a short time, and, when she came back, she heard Heintzelman take her last breath.

Nonchalantly, Gillett and Chamberlin decided that they would spend one more day in Hattiesburg with Hulett's mother and nephews, then cut up the bodies, bury them, and burn the house down. By that time it was mid-afternoon, and Hulett's nephew, Michael Hester, who was seventeen, and Michael's thirteen-year-old brother, Mitchell, stopped by after school, as they customarily did. Michael and Mitchell lived with Caroline Hester, who was their grandmother and Hulett's mother. Gillett and Chamberlin told them that Hulett and Heintzelman had left town with friends, and, to avert suspicion, they went with the boys to the zoo, to play basketball, and to Caroline's house to eat. When they returned that evening, they decided to clean up the house. They stripped the carpet off the living room floor and took the bodies into the bathroom. Chamberlin took some sleeping pills, then she and Gillett went to bed and slept through the night.

The next day was Monday, and one of the boys skipped school and stopped by the house. Chamberlin and Gillett said they would meet him at Caroline's house, and, on the way there, Gillett suggested that they put the bodies in Hulett's deep freezer and take them to Kansas. They spent some time at Hulett's mother's house, then went home to prepare the bodies for the freezer. Although the original plan was to cut the heads and hands off both bodies, they did not dismember Heintzelman's. While Chamberlin watched for cars and then held the garbage bags, Gillett cut off Hulett's head and arms with a pruning saw and put the body parts into the bags. They turned Hulett's deep freezer on its side, loaded Heintzelman's and Hulett's bodies into it, and taped the freezer shut with electrical and duct tape. Then they went through the house and gathered up six or seven garbage bags full of evidence. They loaded the freezer and the garbage bags into the truck and left for Kansas the next morning, with a plan to return at some point and burn Hulett's house down. In her statement to law enforcement, Chamberlin said that they left Mississippi on March 22 and arrived in Kansas on March 23. She thought that the fight occurred on March 19.

After returning to Kansas, Chamberlin and Gillett left the freezer at a relative's farm in the country. They tried to drive the pickup truck as little as possible, in case it had been reported stolen, and they stayed with some of Gillett's relatives. Though they had no money, Chamberlin and Gillett had a burning desire to earn some. Of course, they would not choose legal means to earn money. In fact, they had brought with them supplies for setting up a meth lab. They were offered an opportunity to produce a batch of meth for a meager $500.00, so they took the pickup, along with the necessary supplies, out to the farm and produced the batch. A relative left with the drugs to sell. Chamberlin and Gillett were arrested in Russell the next day.

Following her confession, Chamberlin took officers to Russell's city dump to retrieve the evidence that had been discarded there. After Chamberlin directed them to the location where the garbage had been left, officers recovered seven trash bags. The bags contained, among other things, Hulett's work clothes and driver's license, Heintzelman's purse, a bloody pillow, and a Hattiesburg phone book.

Hattiesburg police were alerted that a pickup truck with a Mississippi tag had been found in Kansas, along with two bodies. Local law enforcement officers ran a check on the tag and found that it belonged to Linda Heintzelman. They went to Hulett's and Heintzelman's home to do a welfare check, where they found a car with Kansas tags and front end damage. The house was locked, and they saw a ceiling fan running. Officers knocked at the door, but no one answered. After Kansas authorities notified the Hattiesburg officers of Chamberlin's confession, the Hattiesburg officers went back to the house to process it as a crime scene. The house was neat, but there was no carpet in the living area. Additionally, the officers found blood on the floor and the furniture, and the mattress in one of the bedrooms was soaked with blood. They also found a safe with pry marks on it.

Dr. Donald Pojman, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Heintzelman and Hulett, reported numerous injuries to each of them. Specifically, Heintzelman had twelve separate blunt-force injuries to her head that caused lacerations - primarily on the back of her head. Those injuries were consistent with being struck with a hammer. She had a large cut on the front of her right thigh, and there were two additional cuts in the hip region on the right side. There were several cuts on her neck and abdomen, and a scrape under her left eye. Some of the cuts on her neck were relatively superficial; others went through the skin to the muscle, but did not strike any major blood vessels. The cuts on the abdomen went through the skin to the underlying fat tissue. Heintzelman had several stab wounds and long cuts on her back. There were cuts on her hands that were consistent with defensive injuries.

The pathologist concluded that Heintzelman died from multiple injuries. "She died from the sharp-force injuries of the torso and the neck. She also died from blunt-force injuries of the head and from asphyxiation, which would be the blockage of air or blood vessels getting to the lung such as strangulation or putting something over a person's mouth."

Dr. Pojman testified on cross-examination that none of the injuries alone would have killed Heintzelman. While the cuts could have caused significant blood loss over a long period of time, they did not involve any major blood vessels. The blows to the head, while causing fractures, did not cause actual brain damage. Therefore, while she might have been unconscious right after she was hit, she would not have died immediately from the blows. The tape over her mouth would not have prevented her breathing through her nose, although a fracture to her neck might have interfered with her breathing. Because she could have survived that injury for some period of time, Dr. Pojman believed that it was the combination of injuries that likely caused Heitzelman's death.

Hulett had several superficial cuts and abrasions on his face, head, and neck. The more significant injuries were to his head, above his left ear. There, the autopsy revealed five semicircular lacerations that went through the skin. The lacerations resulted in a large fracture of the skull, approximately four by three inches, where the skull was actually pushed into the brain, resulting in brain injury. The injuries were consistent with being hit with a hammer. Hulett also had minor wounds to his arm. According to Dr. Pojman, Hulett died from the blunt-force injuries to the left side of his head.

Martha Petrofsky, who was an inmate at the Forrest County Jail at the same time as Chamberlin, testified about statements that Chamberlin made to her about the crime. According to Petrofsky, Chamberlin and Gillett came to Mississippi to sell drugs and use the money to go elsewhere. Chamberlin told her that the couples had a "blowup" over the damage done to Chamberlin's vehicle, and Chamberlin was physically involved to the extent of hitting Heintzelman in the head with some object and kicking her in the side. Chamberlin also held Heintzelman's head up while Gillett slapped Heintzelman and told her that he was going to "break" her if she did not give them the combination to the safe. Petrofsky said that Chamberlin told Gillett, "Well, you're going to have to get a little rougher than that." It was Petrofsky's impression that Chamberlin egged Gillett on. Chamberlin told her that they had sex after the murders. Chamberlin also said that she "was caught up in the moment of it, but she regretted getting caught because there was too many other ways they could have gotten rid of those bodies without being caught with them." Another inmate, Vanessa Stringfellow, testified that she heard Chamberlin tell other inmates, "After we cut his throat, we propped him up on the couch, and his head was hanging to one side, and we proceeded to have sex in front of the corpse, and it was the greatest sex that [we] ever had and it was an extreme adrenaline rush."

After the jury found Chamberlin guilty of capital murder, three witnesses testified on her behalf during the sentencing phase. Sherry Norris was in jail with Chamberlin, and she testified that Chamberlin gave her food and a blanket and comforted her. She saw Chamberlin shortly after Chamberlin talked to her son, Gabriel, and she said that Chamberlin was crying because Gabriel had gotten into some trouble. Carla DiBenetto was also in jail with Chamberlin, and she developed a friendship with her that had continued after DiBenetto's release. DiBenetto said that Chamberlin gave her good advice, and she thought that Chamberlin could do the same for other people. She testified that Chamberlin loved her children dearly. Both Norris and DiBenetto asked the jury to spare Chamberlin's life.

Chamberlin's primary mitigation witness was Dr. Beverly Smallwood, a psychologist. Dr. Smallwood spent over twenty hours interviewing Chamberlin and performing psychological testing. She also interviewed persons who knew Chamberlin to learn more about Chamberlin's background and history. Among those interviewed were Chamberlin's aunt, Loma Wagner; her mother, Twila Speer; a childhood friend; and the son of an elderly woman who was cared for by Chamberlin.

After talking to Chamberlin and these witnesses, it was apparent that abuse and neglect were a central part of Chamberlin's life. As a small child she saw and experienced abuse: verbal, physical and sexual, something which Chamberlin described as "normal." The abuse came from men and women, family members and non-family members alike. The abuse continued into adulthood. Dr. Smallwood's assessment of Chamberlin's early life follows:

In Lisa's childhood she was abused in multiple ways. Her biological father was physically abusive to her. He was also physically abusive to her mother. Her parents divorced when she was about three or four. But he had abused her severely.
Lisa's mother was bipolar, had bipolar disorder, and she was also a severe alcoholic. She also physically abused Lisa Jo. And she acknowledged this to me herself as well as other family members with whom I talked.
Lisa was physically and sexually abused by her brother. It's actually a half brother. And this occurred when her mother would be out doing what she did in terms of being with men and bringing home men. I also did mention that Lisa's mother also verbally abused her according to Lisa's friend, Veronica, in whom Lisa confided during those early years. And she also heard this herself. Lisa's mother would call her a slut and a whore and, "You're going to grow up to be just like me." So this was the kind of prophesies that she had over her life.
Additionally, then her mother got remarried and she had a stepfather. And that stepfather also physically abused Lisa. He also physically abused his own daughter, which was Lisa's stepsister.
Additionally, in the fourth grade, a fourth grade teacher sexually abused Lisa. Not only her but some other girls in the process, and this did come to light and definitely impacted her school performance at that time. There apparently was a significant change in her involvement and engagement in school at that point in time.

Dr. Smallwood was asked how this history would have impacted Chamberlin's relationships with men. She gave the following answer:

I was so struck as Lisa told me about some of these abusive experiences with men early in her life, particularly her stepfather. In one breath she would say it was a good relationship, and in the next breath she would talk about being beaten and strangled. And then she would say, and it was a good relationship. I was his favorite.
And what happened through those times was that Lisa came to expect abuse to be the normal thing. That was just the way it was. So she continued to become engaged in abusive relationships with men and really kind of saw those as normal. Also, even though she had been sexually abused, she also devalued herself to the point that she did act out sexually and had not just ongoing relationships with certain men but casual sexual relationships. And these were I believe direct outgrowths of the kind of learning that she had as a very young child about her own worth and about just whether she had the right to have anything else happen in her life.

According to Smallwood, Chamberlin had three children - two sons and a daughter - by three different men. The father of her second child was extremely abusive to Chamberlin, and it was through him that she met Gillett, who had been in jail with him. Her relationship with Gillett was stormy; Chamberlin told Dr. Smallwood that he had once tried to drown her. Despite this abuse, Chamberlin stayed in the relationship.

Based on her research, testing, and expertise, Dr. Smallwood offered the following psychological assessment of Chamberlin:

Lisa had - from the traumatic experiences in her past as well as the things which you're very aware, Lisa experienced some symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Additionally, she had severe methamphetamine addiction. Lisa started drinking when she was about twelve years old. She started using meth at thirteen to get out of the abusive household. She said it was easier to come back in and experience what that household was like if she was stoned. She maintained that meth addiction until she was incarcerated.
Additionally, she meets the criteria for receptance of borderline personality disorder, which is a severe personality disorder that's often seen in people who have been through abusive backgrounds.

Based on this information and her expertise, Dr. Smallwood offered this explanation of how Chamberlin's psychological state affected her actions during the murders of Hulett and Heintzelman:

I guess the way I would sum it up is as an accumulative effect and growing mental and emotional disturbance on the day that these crimes were committed and the days thereafter. This isn't a very clinical term, but I'll just say it this way and I think we'll all understand it. Lisa was a psychological mess. And it had grown starting in her early childhood with things that she couldn't help but then choices that she made over time and not having the tools, having never had role models or a support system and having not taken some of the ...

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