State high court denies post-conviction relief for Madison County death row inmate
On Wednesday, the Mississippi Supreme Court denied a third petition for post-conviction relief for death row inmate Justin H. Underwood who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Madison County in 1995.
According to court documents, Lindsay Harris returned home from work on Feb. 15, 1994, to find his wife Virginia missing.
“Her body was found the next day in a wooded area approximately a mile and a half from her home,” court documents state. “She had been shot four times. Testimony at trial revealed that Underwood’s vehicle had been seen near the Harris house on the morning of the crime.
“Underwood’s uncle testified that his .32 caliber handgun had been stolen prior to the murder and that he subsequently had recovered the weapon from Underwood’s car. The state’s firearms expert testified that the bullets removed from Virginia Harris’ body were fired from that weapon.
“Upon interrogation, Underwood admitted that he had shot Mrs. Harris with the handgun he had stolen from his uncle. He claimed that Mrs. Harris had asked him to kill her because her husband had given her AIDS. The defendant and the state stipulated at trial that Mrs. Harris never had AIDS or HIV. The jury returned a verdict of guilty and determined that Underwood should be put to death. He was sentenced accordingly.”
The court’s Wednesday, Dec. 15, ruling, made public Thursday, was on Underwood’s third petition for post-conviction relief.
Wednesday’s ruling states that the court denied Underwood’s first petition for post-conviction relief in 2005 and his second petition for post-conviction relief in 2010.
“Before the Court is Underwood’s third petition for post-conviction relief,” the court’s Wednesday ruling states. “Underwood raises numerous issues in his petition. In response, the state argues that many of those claims are procedurally barred.”
Among grounds outlined in Underwood’s third petition for post-conviction relief includes several claims of newly discovered evidence, claims of suppressed evidence and claims the state presented false testimony.
“Underwood claims that there is new evidence that Lindsay Harris, the victim’s husband, could have been the actual killer and that there is new evidence about how the murder weapon was located,” Wednesday’s ruling states. “At trial, the defense attempted to blame Harris as the perpetrator and raised questions about how officers had obtained the gun.
“Underwood also argued in his first two petitions for post-conviction relief that Harris was the true murderer. At this stage, Underwood has not shown that this evidence could not have been discovered before the trial or before the filing of his first two petitions. And he has not shown that the result would have been different.”
The Wednesday ruling states Underwood argues that new advancements in firearms science has emerged, shown by a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and a 2013 FBI letter, since the murder.
“He contends that those documents establish a scientific consensus that examiners may not present as fact that a particular gun fired a particular bullet,” the court states. “He argues that, if the state’s firearms expert had been prohibited from testifying that the bullets recovered from the victim’s body were fired in the gun recovered from Underwood’s car or had been cross-examined about the scientific consensus, the result would have been different.”
The new evidence failed to meet the court’s standards.
“We hold that Underwood’s claims of newly discovered evidence do not meet the newly discovered evidence exceptions to the time bar and the successive writ bar of the UPCCRA,” the court states.
Underwood, in his third petition for post-conviction relief, maintains that his confessions were false.
“At trial, the state presented evidence of two typewritten confessions that had been signed by Underwood,” the court states. “In the first, Underwood admitted that he had broken into his uncle’s home and had stolen a revolver. In the second, he confessed that he had used that revolver to kill the victim.
“Underwood now claims that he never confessed and that officers had him sign blank forms, which were filled in later. But Underwood’s present claim that he did not confess at all is contrary to his previous positions taken at the suppression hearing, in the direct appeal, and in the initial petition for post-conviction relief.
“Before now, Underwood never claimed that both statements were fabricated from blank pages that he had signed. Underwood’s present claim that he told his previous lawyers that the documents had been fabricated is not only procedurally barred but, notwithstanding the procedural bars, is not credible and is bereft of merit,” the court states.
The court denied Underwood’s petition in full in the decision written by James W. Kitchens, presiding justice for the court, and all justices agreed.
“After a full review of Underwood’s claims, we conclude that most are procedurally barred and not within an exception and, notwithstanding the procedural bars, are without merit,” the decision states. “Underwood’s other claims are without merit. It is therefore ordered that the Petition for Post-Conviction Relief filed by Justin Underwood is denied.”