In an ‘extraordinary’ move, Mississippi AG tries to overturn officer’s manslaughter conviction
Knowing that a police officer would go to prison for killing her 62-year-old brother didn’t dull Bettersten Wade’s grief. But it helped that someone would be held responsible.
Then Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch asked a judge last week to throw out the officer’s 2022 conviction, taking his side over the district attorney who prosecuted him. The unusual move strengthened the officer’s case before the Mississippi Court of Appeals. And it left Wade angry and hurt.
“It means she doesn’t care about my brother,” Wade said of Fitch’s motion. “She’s showing that she doesn’t have any kind of feelings for my brother. The only thing she has feelings for is a police officer.”
It is not just Wade who is upset. Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens accused Fitch of undermining the work of the jury that voted last year to convict former Jackson Police Officer Anthony Fox of culpable negligent manslaughter for slamming George Robinson to the ground and inflicting a fatal head injury. “It was dismissive to the rule of law, and justice, and the will of the people,” Owens said in an interview.
Fitch’s office declined to comment and referred to her July 10 brief, which argues that evidence presented at trial did not support Fox’s conviction — and that the jury made a mistake.
“After thorough review, the State has concluded that the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to allow a rational juror to convict Fox of culpable-negligence manslaughter,” Fitch’s brief says. It concludes: “Fox should never have been convicted and should not face another trial.”
Matthew Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College, called Fitch’s motion “extraordinary,” not just because she essentially bigfooted Owens, but also because it pits a white Republican attorney general against a Black Democratic district attorney, both of whom are running for re-election this fall.
The dispute, Steffey said, mirrors the political and racial dynamics of an ongoing legal battle over white Republican state officials’ attempts to assert more control over the justice system in Jackson, the majority-Black and heavily Democratic state capital and the seat of Hinds County.
The conservatives who run state government “don’t appear to trust the voters and elected officials in Hinds County, and certainly view them as their political opponents, not their allies,” Steffey said. Fitch’s office also makes the final determination whether to pursue criminal charges against police officers in Mississippi who have shot someone.
The Jan. 13, 2019, encounter between Fox and Robinson began after police were sent to Robinson’s neighborhood to search for a suspect in the killing of a local pastor. Soon after arriving, Fox said he noticed a woman standing at a parked car holding money. Suspecting a drug deal, Fox said he approached. Robinson was sitting in the driver’s seat.
Robinson had recently been released from the hospital after having a stroke that had left him partially paralyzed but able to drive; witnesses told investigators he was returning home to a celebratory cookout after making a trip to the store. Fox said Robinson did not comply with his orders to exit the car and seemed to be trying to hide something; witnesses said they heard Robinson say he’d just had a stroke and was struggling to get out.
A brief struggle followed in which Fox, with help from other officers, slammed Robinson to the ground.
An ambulance arrived, and an EMT bandaged a cut on Robinson’s head. He refused further treatment. No drugs were found, but Robinson was given a citation alleging failure to obey and resisting arrest. He was allowed to leave.
Later that night, Robinson’s girlfriend found him in bed unconscious and foaming at the mouth. He was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later. An autopsy determined that Robinson died of a subdural hematoma, or bleeding around the brain, caused by “multiple blunt head injury,” and labeled his death a homicide — meaning that it was the result of actions by another person.
The Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation that did not result in charges, but a Hinds County grand jury indicted Fox and two other Jackson police officers — all of whom are Black, as was Robinson — on second-degree murder charges. A judge later dismissed the charges against the other officers. Fox, however, was convicted of culpable negligent manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.
Fox appealed that conviction, arguing that the evidence at trial did not support the verdict — that Robinson’s injuries were due to his resisting arrest and his underlying medical condition, and not the result of excessive force. Fox’s lawyers have also said the judge gave “erroneous” instructions to the jury and unfairly prevented Fox from recounting what Robinson said to him.
One of Fox’s lawyers, Merrida Coxwell, said in an interview that since Robinson suffered only a small cut, he could not have been thrown headfirst to the ground or beaten, as some witnesses said.
“The medical evidence doesn’t support it,” Coxwell said.
Fitch’s brief embraces Fox’s argument of insufficient evidence. “Fox had a struggle with Robinson in which he assertedly slammed Robinson on the ground—yet that struggle was prolonged and made harder by Robinson’s continual resistance and failure to follow commands,” one of Fitch’s deputies wrote. The brief also says Robinson “suffered only superficial visible injuries.”
Owens said Fitch’s office gave him five minutes’ notice that it was going to file that brief. He responded first in a public statement that accused her of making an “unprecedented political maneuver” to support a police officer. In a later brief to the Court of Appeals, Owens’ office accused Fitch’s office of making “factual misrepresentations” while “zealously advocating for the interest of a convicted criminal defendant.”
“We did everything related to this case by the book,” Owens said. “A textbook examination. We followed evidence where it led; we didn’t have any preconceived notions; we gave the benefit of the doubt in many instances to police and the nature of their jobs.”
Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP and a longtime Jackson resident, said Fitch’s actions on the Fox case should be seen as a preview of what could happen if a new law creating a state-appointed court to handle criminal cases in Jackson is allowed to go into effect. The NAACP has sued to block the law — a challenge backed by the U.S. Justice Department — saying it strips Jackson residents of their voting power and weakens their say in how justice is administered in the city, where judges and district attorneys are elected. A judge has put the law on hold while the case proceeds.
Fitch’s support of Fox “is not just. It is the height of unfairness,” Johnson said. “And that’s what the rest of Jackson will be confronted with with the taking of local authority and home rule.”
Robinson’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit accusing Fox and the two other officers of excessive force and attempting to cover up their actions, accusing the city of Jackson of failing to properly train and supervise the officers, and accusing the ambulance company that responded to the scene of failing to properly treat Robinson.
The city has denied the family’s claims and said it isn’t liable for what happened to Robinson. The officers’ lawyers responded that they “acted reasonably and prudently and had a legitimate and lawful justification for all actions taken.” The ambulance company, American Medical Response, denied failing to provide proper care.
A federal court judge dismissed some of the claims, while others remain pending in state court.
For Wade, this is all about her brother.
She acknowledged that Robinson had a criminal record, including drug-related arrests and a conviction for fatally shooting a friend, for which he spent nearly 20 years in prison. He’d been out more than eight years when he was confronted by Fox.
Robinson always accepted his punishment, Wade said.
But Fox “doesn’t even want to acknowledge that he killed my brother,” she said.
Wade said she is still haunted by thoughts of her brother’s encounter with police, and his last hours unconscious, drifting toward death.
“If they didn’t mess with my brother, he’d still be around,” she said.