Lon Mitchell Pierce Jr Case in Sullivan County
When a 15 year-old black kid from Florida and two 15 year-old female friends went on a joy-ride in a van stolen from one girl's mother, that ride ended in tragedy in Bristol, Tennessee. Pierce ran into a roadblock in Bristol, Tennessee, struck a police car, the car struck and killed a local deputy. Local officials tried to run Pierce up on capital murder charges with an all white jury in a community that doesn't care about civil rights.
The Tennessee Supreme Court threw out his convection; Pierce got another trial, and was convicted of a lesser charge. He was released for time served while local racists issued death threats. The two stories below supply the details.
State Supreme Court orders new trial for teen convicted in deputy's death
By the Associated Press
BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) : The Tennessee Supreme Court has overturned a Florida teen-ager's conviction for killing a Sullivan County deputy in a roadblock car crash.
In an unanimous decision issued Friday, the court ordered a new trial for Lon Mitchell Pierce Jr., 19, who was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1996. "I am disgusted by the Supreme Court decision," Sheriff Wayne Anderson said Monday.
Pierce, of Orlando, Fla., was 15 when he was fleeing authorities in a stolen minivan and crashed into a police car at a roadblock on Nov. 22, 1995. Deputy Steve Mullins was hit by his cruiser and thrown against a truck, suffering a fatal head injury.
At the trial, prosecutors told a jury that Pierce was guilty of felony murder because he was committing another crime, the van theft, when Mullins was killed.
But witnesses testified that the van was stolen by a teen-age girl who was traveling with Pierce and his girlfriend and that the theft happened 20 days before the fatal crash.
Pierce's conviction for felony murder based on the van theft was upheld by a divided Court of Criminal Appeals in 1998. But the state Supreme Court disagreed with that decision.
Because Mullins' killing was not "closely connected in time or place to the taking of the vehicle," a felony murder charge was not justified, Justice Frank Drowota wrote.
Pierce, who has been in a Memphis prison since his conviction, is to appear in Sullivan County court July 14 for a hearing to decide how the case will proceed.
District Attorney General Greeley Wells said Monday he has not decided what charge will be placed against Pierce.
Pierce's attorney Don Spurrell said he believes the state cannot retry his client for first-degree murder but may file a second-degree murder charge.
If Pierce is convicted of reckless homicide or criminally negligent homicide, he likely would already have served any prison sentence that could be imposed, Spurrell said.
The Supreme Court did not reverse Pierce's convictions for felony theft, felony evading arrest and misdemeanor theft charges in the case. Pierce was sentenced to four years in prison for those crimes.
Two teen-age girls in the van later were acquitted of murder charges in juvenile court. They were convicted of stealing the van and other charges.
Published June 27, 2000
Pierce Goes Free
BLOUNTVILLE -- Lon Mitchell Pierce Jr. walked out of the Sullivan County jail a free man Friday night after a jury acquitted him of second-degree murder in the slaying of a sheriff's deputy five years ago.
The 10-woman, two-man jury instead convicted Pierce of a much less-serious crime, reckless homicide. That verdict means Pierce will serve no more time in prison for killing Sullivan County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Mullins as he manned a roadblock east of Bristol one day before Thanksgiving 1995.
The verdict -- which came at 5:10 p.m. after seven hours of deliberations -- reduced Pierce to tears. As he learned he was acquitted of second-degree murder, Pierce fell into the arms of one of his attorneys, Janie Lindamood, and sobbed. His mother and grandmother, who came here from Michigan for the trial, and other supporters began clapping and crying as well.
Tears also came from Mullins' widow, Georgeanne, and Mullins' daughters. They left the courtroom, one of them crying, "No, no," before the jury finished announcing its decision. The verdict brought a bitter end to a four-year legal battle for Sullivan County prosecutors, who won a first-degree murder conviction against Pierce in 1996. He was sentenced to life in prison. But the conviction was overturned earlier this year by the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the case was sent back to Sullivan County for retrial.
District Attorney General Greeley Wells, who prosecuted Pierce both times, decried Friday's verdict outside the courtroom. "I'm extremely disappointed in the verdict of the jury. Mr. Pierce walks out of the courtroom because he has served more time than he can get for the crime for which he was convicted," Wells said. "He gets at most a four-year sentence, and that's very disappointing."
Wells also offered sympathy to Mullins' family and said he hoped they can put the ordeal behind them. About 30 minutes after Wells spoke briefly about the verdict, Pierce walked from the jail surrounded by his family and supporters. Pierce said nothing to reporters as he put an end to five years spent behind bars. One of his supporters urged reporters to leave Pierce alone as the group hurried toward waiting vehicles. Pierce's lawyer, Don Spurrell, also declined comment, saying "the verdict speaks for itself."
Pierce's family was escorted to their hotel by a sheriff's deputy after Spurrell told Circuit Judge Jerry Beck he feared for their safety. "I am sure some people are shocked this man is walking out of jail today," Spurrell told the judge. "I have personally received a death threat that there's a 36-aught bullet with my name on it."
Spurrell refused an escort for himself but urged the judge to order the sheriff to provide one for the Pierce family. Sheriff Wayne Anderson, who was in court for the verdict, at first said he did not have enough manpower to do so but later agreed after the judge suggested he would escort the family himself.
Pierce is expected to go back to Michigan with his mother and grandmother on Sunday, but he will have to make one more appearance in a Sullivan County courtroom in December. Even though Pierce's sentence for reckless homicide will add no time to the five years he already has spent in prison, Beck said the law still requires a formal sentencing hearing. At that hearing, Pierce faces a sentence of two to four years. If he had been convicted of second-degree murder, Pierce would have faced a 15- to 25-year sentence.
During an emotional weeklong trial, Mullins' fellow officers told the jury about the chase that led to his death on Nov. 22, 1995. The 20-mile pursuit began in Bristol Virginia when two police officers spotted Pierce behind the wheel of a minivan that had been reported stolen in Florida, witnesses said.
Pierce drove through stop signs and stop lights, passed a school bus that was about to let children off and exceeded speed limits as the chase wound through Bristol Virginia and Bristol Tennessee, witnesses said. The chase headed down Weaver Pike and then Hickory Tree Road, where Steve Mullins used his cruiser to set up a partial roadblock, witnesses said. Pierce never slowed down as he crashed the van into Mullins' cruiser, which struck the officer, witnesses said.
The impact threw Mullins into the air, and his skull was shattered when he struck the pavement, witnesses said. Three officers who were involved in the pursuit told the jury they saw Pierce take no evasive action before the crash. But Pierce, who did not testify at the first trial, told the jury during the second that he was trying to go around the cruiser. He said he saw Mullins pointing his pistol, that he ducked because he feared being shot and that he lost control of the van.
Pierce repeatedly said on the witness stand that he only was trying to get away. The defense argued that Mullins put himself in danger when he set up the roadblock. During court Friday, the jury rewatched a videotaped re-enactment of the collision, pausing on frames that showed a deputy standing about where Mullins would have been -- between the door and side of his cruiser. The jury also rewatched segments of the video that showed an investigator successfully driving around a cruiser placed in the spot where Mullins set up his roadblock.
The jury also posed two questions to the judge -- first asking whether the deputy in the video was simulating Mullins' position at the time of the crash. Later, the jury asked the judge for a better definition of the word "knowingly" -- a critical element of second-degree murder, which involves a "knowing" killing.
Both times the judge told the jury he could not answer those questions. The jury returned its verdict two hours after asking for a better definition of a knowing killing. Pierce was freed Friday on a $100 personal recognizance bond -- which did not require him to post any money to guarantee his return. He is scheduled to be back in court Dec. 12.
Followup: no further action was taken on December 12, Pierce was released and left the area with relatives.
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