By Rupert Howell
A split decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed and remanded back to Circuit Court a 2014 murder conviction that found James D. Willie guilty of the murder of Thomas Schlender on Interstate 55 near Courtland on May 8, 2012.
In the appeal a majority of the justices agreed with Willie that Judge Jimmy McClure’s response to a question from the jury amounted to instructing them that they could not find that Willie possessed the murder weapon without also finding him guilty of murder.
Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale said Monday that his office was obviously disappointed in the decision, but would be ready to retry the case next year.
The minority opinion stated the jury was properly instructed that it could not convict Willie of murder unless it found beyond reasonable doubt that Willie deliberately shot and killed Schlender without the authority of law.
Three other issues in the appeal — that the court erred in allowing ballistics expert to give definitive testimony, that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance and that the jury returned a guilty verdict against an overwhelming weight of evidence — were not found.
Schlender, 74, was killed while traveling from his Nebraska home on I-55 near Courtland to pick up his grandson in Bible college in Florida in May of 2012.
Willie was soon after connected with the murder of Lori Ann Carswell in Tunica County.
Evidence obtained during that investigation tied together the case for prosecutors to pursue a conviction for Schlender’s murder in Panola County where he received the guilty verdict and a life sentence.
He was also found guilty of the murder of Carswell in Tunica County and is currently serving a life sentence for that conviction.
The murders were only days apart and early in the investigation authorities speculated both victims were randomly picked, fueling fear across north Mississippi for motorists.