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Watts v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 11, 2018

JAMES EARNEST WATTS A/K/A SQUIRREL A/K/A JAMES WATTS APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 01/19/2018

          MARION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. ANTHONY ALAN MOZINGO TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: JAMES EARNEST WATTS (PRO SE)

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: BARBARA WAKELAND BYRD

          BEFORE IRVING, P.J., CARLTON AND FAIR, JJ.

          IRVING, P.J.

         ¶1. James Earnest Watts appeals the judgment of the Marion County Circuit Court, denying his motion for modification of his sentence.[1]

         FACTS

         ¶2. On April 19, 1994, the grand jury of Marion County indicted Watts for killing Vanessa Nicole Lumpkin, a female child under the age of twelve years old, while in the commission of sexual battery in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19(2)(e) (Supp. 2018). In August 1996, a jury convicted Watts of capital murder and decided that he should receive the death penalty. Watts appealed; the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed his conviction but reversed his sentence on the basis that the trial court had not properly instructed the jury as to the three sentencing options in capital murder cases provided by Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-21(3) (Rev. 2014): death, life in prison without the eligibility for parole, or life in prison with the eligibility for parole. Rather, the jury was instructed only that it had two sentencing options: the death penalty or life in prison without the eligibility for parole.

         ¶3. On June 4, 1999, Watts-represented by counsel-appeared before the trial court for resentencing. The State offered not to seek the death penalty if Watts would agree to waive his right to pursue a sentence before a jury of life with parole and accept a sentence of life without parole. After conferring with his counsel, Watts accepted the State's offer, and the trial court sentenced him to life without the eligibility for parole.

         ¶4. On December 11, 2017, Watts, acting pro se, filed a motion to modify his sentence to life with the eligibility for parole, wherein he argued that Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-21 (Rev. 2014) permitted the trial court to impose a sentence of only imprisonment for life; thus, its imposition of a sentence of life without parole exceeded the statutory maximum. In support of his argument, Watts cited King v. Epps, No. 1:10CV7-A, 2013 WL 1291632, at *1 (N.D. Miss. Mar. 26, 2013), and Bell v. State, 160 So.3d 188, 189 (¶1) (Miss. 2015), for the proposition that Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-19-107 (Rev. 2015) is inapplicable because the death penalty was rendered unconstitutional. The trial court denied Watts's motion and found that the holding in King v. State, 165 So.3d 1289, 1289 (¶1) (Miss. 2015), [2] did not apply to Watts; the trial court did not address the holding in Bell. Watts now appeals. On remand, Watts and the State entered into a plea agreement wherein Watts agreed to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Watts subsequently filed a motion to modify his sentence, arguing that the trial court had exceeded its authority with the sentence it imposed. The trial court denied Watts's motion and Watts has appealed. We find no error and, therefore, affirm.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶5. "Our review of motions to reconsider a sentence is made under an abuse-of-discretion standard." Ducote v. State, 970 So.2d 1309, 1312 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). However, as the State points out, this matter presents itself more so as a petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) because Watts argues that the trial court was without jurisdiction to impose his sentence, that his sentence exceeds the maximum authorized by law, and that his agreement to waive being sentenced by a jury was involuntary. All of these arguments are set forth as potential PCR claims under the Mississippi Uniform Post-Conviction Collateral Relief Act, Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-39-5 (Rev. 2015). "Regarding post-conviction relief appeals, this Court will not disturb the findings of the trial court unless they are found to be clearly erroneous." Ducote, 970 So.2d at 1315 (¶14).

         ¶6. Watts makes multiple arguments in his pro se brief on appeal, culminating in his contention that the trial court was without the discretion to sentence him to life without parole. First, Watts reiterates the argument he made in his motion for modification that his sentence should be modified in light of King v. State, 165 So.3d at 1289. However, as the trial court properly provided in its order, the facts of King differ from the matter at hand because in King, the courts found the defendant ineligible for the death penalty due to intellectual disability. Id. and King v. Epps, 2013 WL 1291632, at *1. Watts has not proven intellectual disability, ...


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