Federal judge: Only woman on Mississippi’s death row can challenge her conviction in state court

Published 8:21 am Saturday, June 11, 2022

The only woman on Mississippi death row can go to state court to challenge her conviction and sentence, a federal judge has ruled.

Lisa Jo Chamberlin, 49, intends to argue she has received ineffective legal representation, according to a ruling issued June 1 by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves.

Chamberlin is in the women’s maximum-security unit at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. She was sentenced to death in 2006 after being convicted on two counts of capital murder in the 2004 killing of two people in Hattiesburg.

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She appealed the verdict and sentence, and both were affirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2008.

In 2015, Reeves ordered a new trial for Chamberlin, who is white, after her attorneys argued Black people had been improperly dismissed from the pool of potential jurors. A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals initially agreed with Reeves’ ruling.

But in 2018, the full appeals court returned Chamberlin to death row, ruling that allegations of racial bias were insufficient to reverse her sentence. She has remained in prison, including during the appeal of the 2015 ruling.

Evidence showed Linda Heintzelman and her boyfriend, Vernon Hulett were killed after they argued with Chamberlin and her then-boyfriend, Roger Gillett, at a home they all shared.

Hulett was hit in the head with a hammer and his throat was slashed. Heintzelman was abandoned after being strangled and stabbed.

When her assailants returned to find Heintezlman was still breathing, she was suffocated with plastic bags. Hulett was decapitated. The bodies were stuffed in a freezer and taken to Kansas, where Gillett and Chamberlin were arrested after state agents raided an abandoned farmhouse near the city of Russell.

Gillett, now 48, also was convicted of two counts of capital murder and initially received a death sentence. His sentence also was overturned, and he was later resentenced to life in prison without parole. He is in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Chamberlin filed the federal appeal in her case in 2011. While her appeal was pending, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in another inmate’s case in 2013 that it would recognize a state right to effective post-conviction legal representation in death penalty cases “even years after the initial post-conviction petition was decided,” Reeves wrote in his June 1 order. That creates the path for Chamberlin’s next appeal in state court.

“Chamberlin’s ineffectiveness claims will be dependent, at least in part, on the facts, and the Mississippi Supreme Court has demonstrated a willingness to review such claims when they return from this Court,” Reeves wrote.

Appeals in death penalty cases typically last several years. Reeves wrote that he is “sympathetic to the State’s frustration” at delays in Chamberlin’s case.

“Much of the reason for the recent delay is the difficulty in conducting an investigation during the pandemic; a situation that has affected almost all of the cases on this Court’s docket,” he wrote.

Reeves wrote that he will monitor Chamberlin’s case to ensure she pursues the new state court appeal in a timely manner.