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Murder Charge Brings Renewed Scrutiny Into Ashley Henley’s Death

By David Howell

It looks like another media whirlwind is developing with the news that Billy Brooks was indicted for the murder of former state legislator Ashley Henley. Dateline NBC has reached out looking for information and plenty of other media outlets will follow. We saw it in the days and weeks that followed Henley’s death last year.

I remember back in June, 2021, when a camera crew  with the NBC Today show set up outside the sheriff’s department looking for information. Everyone in town was watching, wondering if a segment of the show would be broadcast from Water Valley. As far as I know, that never happened.

The renewed scrutiny brings a lot of speculation about the murder. But before we go any farther, it must be stated that an indictment simply means that a grand jury has decided that the state has enough evidence to charge someone with a crime. When the case is presented by a prosecutor, if most grand jurors agree that probable cause exists, they vote to indict.  If the grand jury decides the evidence doesn’t support the charges, no indictment results, and the matter is dropped. If a person is indicted, the case proceeds to a criminal trial.

Even after a person is indicted, he or she is presumed innocent; and under that presumption of innocence the legal burden of proof is on the prosecution, which must present compelling evidence to a jury. If the prosecution does not prove the charges, then the person is acquitted of the charges.

Now back to the news coverage, the media outlets are back on the story looking for details that may shed light on the crimes. The story appears sensational, as theories range from cover-ups to conspiracies.

My job is to do the same, and I work hard to ensure my reporting is substantiated by strong sources who are willing to be quoted on the record.

There is little new information about the crimes, but we can shed a little light on what has happened since the fire during the early morning hours after Christmas Day, 2020.

First, agents with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI)  have been involved in the investigation since day one. That starts with the fire where Kristina Michelle Jones was found deceased inside the mobile home. The Mississippi Fire Marshal’s office also sent investigators to work the scene. MBI agents were also involved in the investigation into the murder of Ashley Henley. MBI agents worked long hours in the days that followed as they processed the crime scene. When I reached out to Assistant District Attorney Steve Jubera last week about this, his words were “MBI is intimately involved in both investigations.”

MBI is not the lead agency, but they are working closely with the lead agency, the sheriff’s department.

I have also learned that it would be extremely uncommon for MBI to be the lead agency in this investigation in Yalobusha County. Typically MBI is not the lead agency unless it is an officer-involved shooting.

Another question I commonly hear is what changed in the investigation. What did investigators learn that allowed the information to be presented to the grand jury?

The answer is likely that the case has been building, as it can take time to gather evidence. From years of reporting, I know that search warrants for phone records can take months, not counting the time it takes to process what can be hundreds of pages generated from phone records that could be relevant to an investigation. It also takes time to get information back from the state crime lab.

Now for the flow of information about this investigation – naturally Jubera or investigators are not going to release intricate details about evidence investigators are gathering in this case or any other. Jubera is not going to try this case in the court of public opinion, especially on social media. Jubera is not going to release information that will jeopardize prosecuting a case. Jubera is not going to do anything to potentially taint the jury pool. In an investigation with as much media scrutiny as this one, too much information could make it more difficult to impanel an impartial jury.

As the court proceedings continue, there will be a discovery period that allows exchange of information between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. In criminal cases, information exchanged during discovery could include  police reports, public records, lab results, witness lists, deposition testimony for witnesses, toxicology reports or DNA reports.

The rest of us are going to have to wait and see. Only time will tell what evidence has been gathered.

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