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Story Publication logo March 11, 2024

Rankin County DA Reviewing ‘Goon Squad’ Cases. Legal Experts Say That’s Not Enough.

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'Goon Squad'

A sheriff's office unit beat, tortured, sexually assaulted, planted evidence, and falsely charged...

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Rankin County District Attorney Bubba Bramlett confirmed that his office is reviewing criminal cases involving Rankin County’s “Goon Squad,” but he won’t divulge details, including how many cases have been dismissed and how far back his review will go.

In August, five deputies for the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department and a Richland police officer pleaded guilty to state and federal charges in a “Goon Squad” operation. Seven months earlier, they broke into a house without a warrant, tortured two Black men, Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, threatened to use a sex toy on them and shoved a gun in Jenkins’ mouth and shot him. To conceal their crimes, they destroyed surveillance footage, planted false evidence and lied to investigators.

What these six officers did “violated the public trust and shook the foundation of our justice system,” Bramlett told Mississippi Today in a statement.

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After learning of these crimes, “my office immediately conducted an extensive review to identify any and all cases in which these officers were involved,” he said. “We then reviewed each of those identified cases to determine if their testimony would be essential in the prosecution of that case.

Rankin County District Attorney Bubba Bramlett. Image courtesy of DA Bramlett's website.

“As a result, my office moved to dismiss those indicted cases and declined those cases which were not yet indicted, wherein the integrity of the investigation may have been compromised. This is an ongoing process in which we will continue to review and identify cases involving those officers and act accordingly.”

An investigation by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today and The New York Times uncovered allegations that torture, coerced statements and false incident reports involving these six officers and more than a dozen others may stretch back two decades. Some of those interviewed alleged that deputies also planted evidence and filed false charges against them.

On March 19-21, five former Rankin County deputies and one former Richland police officer are slated to be sentenced in federal court for their roles in the torture of Jenkins and Parker. 

When Mississippi Today asked the district attorney how many cases have been dismissed so far, whose charges were dismissed and how far back prosecutors plan to go in examining cases, he declined to answer those questions.

Since last August, prosecutors have asked judges to dismiss 25 drug indictments in Rankin County Circuit Court. 

Seven dismissals don’t appear connected to Goon Squad actions. In two cases, co-defendants took the blame for crimes. In another two, defendants died. In three cases, indictments were dismissed because defendants pleaded guilty in other cases or because of speedy trial issues.

One dismissal cited the involvement of a Goon Squad member: “The State has learned that former Rankin County Deputy Christian Dedmon’s involvement in this case would make a prosecution of this matter untenable.” 

One mentions the unavailability of an essential witness, and another cites new evidence. One dismissal discusses “the discovery of facts that make a prosecution of this matter untenable.”

In the dismissal of 14 indictments, prosecutors gave no reason other than it was in “the interest of justice.”

Steven Drizin, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. Image courtesy of Steven Drizin.

Steven Drizin, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, said a systematic review must take place of all cases involving these officers.

“It will be painful because it may require that many convictions are vacated, and many old wounds of victims will be reopened,” he said, “but it is necessary to restore the public’s faith in law enforcement and, in many instances, the district attorney’s office who relied on these officers for years and may have ignored warning signs.”

Drizin said the problem with prosecutors reviewing these cases is they “will have to judge some of their own colleagues and police officers who they may have worked with. Any review that they do will be subject to bias.”

Matt Steffey, professor of law at the Mississippi College School of Law, questioned why the district attorney limited his review to whether Goon Squad officers’ testimony was essential when these same officers have admitted they planted false evidence on innocent people.

He recommended that someone “do the tough work of looking at all cases” and that whoever does it, there must be transparency. Declining to say how far back prosecutors plan to go in looking at cases “is certainly not transparent,” he said.

Matt Steffey, professor of law at the Mississippi College School of Law. Image courtesy of Mississippi College School of Law.

He noted that a review by prosecutors could be questioned because of potential conflicts. The sheriff’s daughter, Alexis Bailey Smith, works as an administrative assistant-paralegal in the district attorney’s office and earns $56,000 a year, according to the minutes of the Rankin County Board of Supervisors.

Steffey said Mississippi could model its approach after other states that have done systematic reviews.

In Chicago, a police detective and commander named Jon Graham Burge led a group of police known as the “Midnight Crew” and “Burge’s Ass-Kickers.” These detectives tortured more than 120 people, most of them Black men, between 1972 and 1991. The officers squeezed genitals, shoved guns in people’s mouths, beat them, suffocated them with plastic bags, burned them with cigarette lighters and used electrical shocks through a device Burge dubbed the “n—– box” to force false confessions.

In 1993, a decade after allegations of torture began to be exposed, Chicago police fired Burge, but it wasn’t until 2002 that a special prosecutor began to examine these allegations.

He conducted a four-year investigation that concluded these officers had likely committed torture but that their crimes couldn’t be prosecuted because they fell outside the statute of limitations.

Afterward, the governor stepped up and pardoned four of Burge’s victims, all of them on death row, after concluding they were innocent. Concluding the death penalty system was “fraught with error,” he also commuted the death sentences of the 167 others to life sentences.

In 2010, Burge was finally convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury and sentenced to more than four years in federal prison.

“The freedom that we treasure most of all in this country is the right to live free of governmental abuse of power,” U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow told him. “When a confession is coerced, the truth of the confession is called into question. When this becomes widespread …, the administration of justice is undermined irreparably. How can one trust that justice will be served when the justice system has been so defiled?”

In the wake of these revelations, the state of Illinois established a Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission for victims. So far, 211 people have filed claims.

Lawyers say a full review of Rankin County cases is needed. “It’s very clear there have been an untold number of convictions that were substantially procured through fraud, coercion or the planting of false evidence, which all these guys admitted to on some level,” said civil rights lawyer Trent Walker, who represents Jenkins and Parker.

Defense lawyer John Colette, who has represented many clients in Rankin County, said every case the Goon Squad members worked on could be called into question and that “an independent review” is needed to “ensure integrity.”

State Public Defender Andre de Gruy said to address this, the Legislature could provide extra funding to the Capital Post-Conviction Counsel to hire some temporary lawyers and investigators “to accept requests for case review from anyone convicted in Rankin County during the period.”

If lawyers reviewing each case found a basis for a post-conviction relief motion, they could file it, he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Briggs Hopson said he hasn’t talked to de Gruy about this idea, but his off-the-cuff reaction is that the U.S. attorney’s office or the Mississippi attorney general’s office would handle such claims.

If wrongful convictions are proven, people are entitled to back pay, he said. State law provides $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration with a ceiling of $500,000. 

Tucker Carrington, executive director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, called on state officials to review all the cases involving any member of the Goon Squad.

After Innocence Project officials uncovered evidence that two men had been wrongly convicted of murder because of the testimony of bite expert Michael West and pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne, Carrington said then-Attorney General Jim Hood promised to review all of their cases.

But that never happened, he said, and the courts are still dealing with those cases, some of which have been overturned.

As a part of their cooperation with authorities, Goon Squad members should be required to tell all of the cases they “messed around with,” Carrington said. “It should be like these serial killers, who have to tell everything they did.”

J. Cliff Johnson, director of the University of Mississippi’s MacArthur Justice Center, said the state could follow the lead of Illinois in creating an independent commission, made up of those in law enforcement, the judiciary and the community, to examine these cases.

“When you have widely known and outrageous acts by officers over a 20-year period of time, you have a duty to the victims to right their wrongs,” he said. “The other obligation is to the community. An important part of that is to be absolutely transparent in providing a remedy so that the public can once again trust the process.”

Any efforts undertaken must recognize the injustice of what happened, identify victims and provide remedies, he said, because “our system already struggles with credibility and respect.”

Brian Howey and Nate Rosenfield contributed to this report.


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