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Court vacates sentence in freezer-bodies case

6/16/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The Mississippi Supreme Court gave a belated birthday present to a former Russell County man, overturning his death sentence.

The court already had upheld the death sentence for Roger Gillett, 40, in connection with the murder of two Hattiesburg, Miss., residents.

The bodies of Vernon Hulett -- Gillett's cousin -- and Linda Heintzelman were found stuffed in a freezer in the back of a pickup parked in a building on a farm owned by Gillett's grandfather not far from Waldo.

Both Gillett and his girlfriend, Lisa Jo Chamberlin, separately were convicted on two counts of murder.

Hulett and Heintzelman both were savagely beaten with a hammer, and their throats were slit.

The court's decision last week, ordering a new sentencing hearing for Gillett, stems from a felony plea in Ellis County, when Gillett and another man convicted of murder tried to escape from jail by overpowering a jailer.

Gillett was found guilty and sentenced in 2004 on a single count of attempted aggravated escape from custody, part of a plea agreement dismissing charges of kidnapping, robbery and battery of an officer in exchange for Gillett's agreement to waive extradition to Mississippi.

The Mississippi court, however, last week took aim at a single aggravating factor in the jury's decision to sentence Gillett to death.

That factor, one of four, was the conviction -- that of his attempted escape in Ellis County -- of a crime involving the use of or threat of violence.

"This court unanimously determined that the 'previous-violent-felony' aggravating factor based on Gillett's Kansas conviction for escape was an invalid aggravator and should not have been presented to the jury," the court said of its earlier decision upholding Gillett's death penalty.

But they called it "harmless error," not enough to overturn the death penalty previously.

"However, on review, we acknowledge that we granted relief not sought and conclude that we did not apply the correct standard of review or sufficiently scrutinize the effect the invalid aggravator had on the sentencing process," the court said.

While the court could have determined if the previous conviction made a difference in the sentence, it declined to do so.

"Gillett's due-process rights were violated when the jury was allowed to consider an invalid aggravator supported by evidence that was not otherwise admissible, and this error was compounded when this court affirmed his sentence," the justices said.

The case will be sent back to district court for sentencing.