Ethel Heard’s family, friends still seek justice for her death

August 7, 2008 in News

BELZONI, Miss. – Ethel Heard’s family and friends of Belzoni, Miss. say they do not understand how a Leflore County jury let the man walk free who killed her by shooting into the occupied, moving vehicle in which she was riding, Nov. 25, 2006.

Heard was a 36-year-old mother of two children.

The jury returned an “innocent” verdict for Jonathan McClellan, 22, reportedly from Lexington, Miss., who was charged with murder in Heard’s death. The shooting occurred on U.S. 49 between Yazoo City and Belzoni. “Justice did not prevail for us,” said Carolyn Heard, the oldest sibling.

According to The Greenwood Commonwealth last week, testimony during McClellan’s trial revealed:

“McClellan and four friends had spent a Friday night bar-hopping in Yazoo City. They left a bar shortly after midnight and, after stopping at Wendy’s restaurant in Yazoo City, headed toward a hunting camp near Belzoni. The group planned to go duck hunting at daybreak. Ryan Damiens, who was driving the truck, testified Tuesday that an intoxicated McClellan announced at one point, ‘I bet I can shoot the tail lights out of that car.’”

The defendant stated it was an accident. He said he was unloading the rifle while holding it outside of the truck’s passenger window.

The bullet went through the tail light of the car, through the trunk of the car and hit Ethel Heard in the back. She was on the rear seat.

According to reports, the jury was instructed to find the defendant guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter or innocent. The four whites and eight blacks found him innocent.

“The evidents were there! I don’t know what was in their minds,” voiced Jeanette Morgan, another of Ethel Heard’s sisters. Morgan said a lot of things just do not add up about how the defendant could get off without serving any time.

“My question is: how could McClellan say he would be entering USM this fall?” Morgan pondered. She said it is strange to her for him to make such a statement before jury deliberations. “Makes me think the jury was already bought off or something,” she alleged.

Geneva Austin, aunt to the Heard sisters, recalled that when the jury first returned, one juror said he was undecided and that he needed more time. Austin said the Judge asked him how much more time he needed. “He told her how much time, but I can’t exactly remember what it was,” she said.

Both Morgan and her sister Carolyn say the family has not gotten one word of apology from McClellan or his family. They say his lawyer asked him in court did he want to say anything to the family. “Look like he started to apologize, but the Judge said he couldn’t at that time,” Morgan said.

Judge Jannie Lewis told The Mississippi Link that it is court procedure not to allow the defendant to address the victim’s family in front of the jury. “It would or could bring in sympathy from the jurors,” she said. “The jury’s decision has to be based on facts,” Lewis said.

“We want to spread the word that we want this to go to a higher level, but we don’t know how to do it,” Carolyn Heard said.

The Heard family and passengers in the targeted car have drafted an open letter to the public, calling the verdict a “miscarriage of justice” and making a quest for help from those in a position to help them take this case to a “higher level.” A copy of the letter follows:

August 4, 2008

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to seek justice for Ethel Heard, Mary Wright, Melody Jones and myself, Vernita Bickcom, for the horrific incident that occurred on Nov. 25, 2006. This document will give one a better understanding of the events leading from the above date to the trial. I feel as though this was a miscarriage of justice and McClellan, Ryan Damion, John Overby, Kimble Lloyd and Matthew Estes should be charged with assessory before, during and after the fact on the state and/or federal level. The reasons for the previous statements are as follows:

• Jonathan McClellan admitted to shooting in the car which was traveling on a state highway; therefore, Mr. McClellan should be charged with (1) discharging a weapon from a moving vehicle and (2) Firing a weapon into a moving vehicle (3) firing a weapon into an occupied vehicle and (4) endangering the lives of Melody, Mary and Vernita.

• Therefore, committing three counts of aggravated assault in addition to murder.

• Ryan Damion, John Overby, Kimble Lloyd and Matthew Estes should have been charged with accessory before, during and after the fact because (1) they had prior knowledge of Mr. McClellan discharging the same rifle at another location (2) they were in the truck at the time the rifle was discharged a second time into the vehicle which Ethel, Vernita, Melody and Mary occupied (3) The story ran on various news stations for four (4) days no one came forward even though the news anchors asked if anyone had information to come forward and (4) they withheld information in an ongoing investigation, one may suggest that this was a case of obstruction of justice.

This bizarre case was broadcasted on WLBT News on Friday August 1, 2008. Due to the nature of the final verdict that set a sense of disbelief for the family and the other young ladies who were involved and never entered into the equation; a jury is not instructed to feel pity for an individual, they are put in place to decide the innocence or guilt due to the presentation of the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Whether or not Mr. McClellan was guilty was evident, the jury’s duty was to decide to what degree and what he should have been found guilty of; murder or manslaughter, innocent was never an option because he admitted to shooting in the car. Drinking was also an issue that was brought to the table; drinking does not excuse one’s actions. If drinking is a reasonable excuse for recklessly shooting into a car, endangering the lives of three other passengers and fatally killing another we need to rethink the criminal justice system and what it is composed of.

The criminal justice system was established to assist the victim, to be the voice for those who are no longer in existence. If the system is failing the victims, who will be their voice? Who’s going to be there to tell their story? How they lived and foremost importantly how they died?

It was also testified in court that Mr. McClellan not only shot into my car but also shot upon entering Highway 49 at another set of individuals who also happened to be African American. I don’t know if this was a hate crime but what I do is I’m seeking justice for Ethel, Melody, Mary and myself.

I expected a much higher level of justice due to the nature of this crime. I don’t know what the jury was thinking when rendering this verdict. The jury is supposed to listen to the evidence and render a verdict on the facts of the case not their personal opinions of people and their lifestyles.

The main problem I have with this case is what type of message we are sending citizens of the delta .. that it’s alright to shoot in an occupied car traveling on the highway just as long as your intent was not to kill and you are under the influence of alcohol? It was also noted by Mr. Damion that all of the individuals were drinking alcohol and bar hopping. The legal age in Mississippi to consume and/or buy alcoholic beverages is 21 but two of the young men were 20 years old at the time.

The intent was there, the evidence proved this fact and all I want is justice for an innocent woman who was tragically taken from her two children and the individuals who were in the car whose life was literally turned upside down due to this horrific crime.

Another issue in this case is the fact that the charges of shooting into an occupied vehicle and endangering the lives of Mary Wright, Vernita Bickcom, and Melody Jones were dismissed by a local authority because it was stated: “the charges that Mary, Vernita, and Melody were included into the initial charge of murder.” The charges of shooting in an occupied car, aggravated assault or because the lives of Melody, Mary and Vernita were also endangered and reckless endangerment, was filed on December 13, 2006 and dismissed by a local elected officials and we just want to know why? Did we matter at all?

WE ARE VICTIMS TOO!

I feel as though this crime was never accurately investigated, Mary, Melody and Vernita were never looked upon as victims even though they were there in the car when Ethel was shot. The mental state or how we were coping with what happened that early morning never entered the equation. We are victims to, we could have been fatally injured or killed that horrific night also but no one seems to care.

When the jurors selected to uphold the law began to feel pity for the accused and local officials dismiss or are not concerned with certain crimes; where does that leave the victims of crime and what does this say about the criminal justice system of the United States? A system that was established to protect the innocent and punish individuals who willfully commit crimes.

If you have any questions I can be reached at 662-836-6799 or 662-836-8370 or you may write P. O. Box 1096, Belzoni, MS 39038, email vernita2003@yahoo.com.

Sincerely,

Vernita Bickcom, Mary Wright, Melody Jones and The Heard Family