JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi attorney general can take over a case when a local prosecutor steps away, but the takeover must be voluntary and a judge cannot set deadlines for the work.
In a unanimous ruling Tuesday, Mississippi Supreme Court justices said a circuit court “acted outside its authority” this year when it ordered Attorney General Lynn Fitch's office to investigate a death after a district attorney recused herself.
Kassie Coleman became Lauderdale County district attorney in November 2018. According to the Meridian Star, Coleman released a statement in August 2019 saying her office was “ready to receive and review any new evidence" about the 2014 shooting death of a 21-year-old man, Christian Andreacchio.
Police said Andreacchio’s death was a suicide, but his parents have said they believe he was killed.
Coleman later recused herself from the case and asked a judge to appoint another prosecutor, according to court documents. Coleman cited several reasons, including an election complaint the Andreacchio family filed against her, Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote for the Supreme Court.
“Coleman insisted her self-disqualification was necessary to ‘avoid any appearance of impropriety,'" Chamberlin wrote.
Bilbo Mitchell, the Lauderdale County district attorney before Coleman, recused himself from the case in 2017 and handed it to then-Attorney General Jim Hood. A grand jury declined to indict two people that year in Andreacchio’s death.
Andreacchio's family wants a new grand jury to examine some police reports they say were not shown to the previous one.
On March 31, Lauderdale County Circuit Judge Charles Wright ordered Fitch to undertake an investigation and report on the status of the work by Sept. 1. Fitch appealed, arguing the judge had overstepped the separation of power between branches of government. She also said the attorney general's office had conflicts of interest in the case.
Chamberlin wrote that Wright acted properly in allowing the district attorney to recuse herself, but the judge “improperly usurped the executive power of the Attorney General by directing her to conduct a criminal investigation and by requiring the Attorney General report to the trial court the status of her criminal investigation by a date certain.”
Chamberlin wrote that the attorney general has the power to appoint and employ outside attorneys and special investigators to work on prosecutions, if she chooses.
“Finally, any decision to investigate a case and present said case to a grand jury as well as a decision to decline prosecution as unwarranted is within the sole and sound discretion of the Attorney General or her designee,” Chamberlin wrote.
Fitch, a Republican, was inaugurated in January 2020. She has made decisions about two high-profile cases transferred from district attorneys to the attorney general's office — one involving a man tried multiple times and the other involving a white police officer charged with shooting a Black man.
Soon after taking office, Fitch was handed the case of Curtis Flowers after Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans recused himself.
Evans tried Flowers six times in the July 1996 killings of four people at a Winona furniture store. Flowers was convicted four times: twice for individual slayings and twice for all four killings. Two trials on all four deaths ended in mistrials.
Each of Flowers’ convictions was overturned. In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed the conviction and death sentence from Flowers’ sixth trial, which was in 2010. Flowers is Black, and justices said prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded African American jurors.
The Supreme Court ruling came after American Public Media’s “In the Dark” investigated the case and interviewed a key witness who said he lied about Flowers. In December 2019, Flowers was released from prison but remained under indictment. In September 2020, Fitch announced she would not pursue a seventh trial of Flowers because there were no longer any credible witnesses.
In May 2020, Fitch announced she was dropping a manslaughter charge against Canyon Boykin, a white former police officer in Columbus who pleaded not guilty in 2016 after being indicted in the shooting death of a Black man, Ricky Ball. Lowndes County District Attorney Scott Colom transferred the case to the attorney general in 2016. It was still pending when Hood, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2019.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.