JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Attorneys for a Mississippi death row inmate asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to order a hearing on his mental health as a possible step toward overturning his conviction.
The attorney general’s office opposed the request, saying a trial judge properly handled the capital murder case against Erik Wayne Hollie, who pleaded guilty in the 2009 killing of a pawn shop owner.
After listening to more than an hour of arguments, justices gave no indication of how or when they might rule.
Hollie, now 30, was sentenced to death by a Copiah County jury in 2010 after he pleaded guilty to capital murder in the killing of Wesson Pawn Shop owner Denmon Ward.
Hollie’s public defender, Alison Steiner, who came to the case years after Hollie was convicted, told justices that shortly after Hollie was sent to prison, he was found to be suffering from “a bipolar-type situation.” She said the condition could not have developed quickly, and indicated Hollie had been mentally incompetent at the time of trial, when he waived the assistance of another defense attorney and pleaded guilty.
“There were times he could appear perfectly normal and times he could appear completely irrational,” Steiner said.
She said that during sentencing, Hollie underwent an evaluation by a psychiatrist who was agreed upon by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Steiner told justices that she believes Hollie was “faking” good mental health so he could “go to a proceeding where he could commit suicide by jury.”
In a videotaped discussion with investigators, Hollie said God had told him to kill Ward, she said.
A circuit judge should have held a hearing to more fully examine Hollie’s mental health, she said.
Steiner said medical records from prison show doctors have treated him for depression and other mental disorders with psychotropic medications including Prozac and Remeron.
Jason L. Davis, a special assistant attorney general, argued said the issue of Hollie’s mental competency was “completely abandoned” by this original defense attorney long ago.
Davis said that although opponents of the death penalty might not like the circumstances, “this is a case of an individual who took responsibility — who took responsibility for his actions, who pled gulity and asked to be sentenced to death.”
Mississippi law says a person can be sentenced to death for killing someone if there is another felony involved. Steiner said jurors in Hollie’s case were told about two possible other felonies that could be used to make his a death-penalty case. One was a robbery that prosecutors said took place during the killing of Ward at the pawn shop. The other was Hollie’s guilty plea to an earlier armed robbery.
She said jurors used his record from the previous armed robbery as the reason for setting a death penalty. However, she questioned whether that was proper. She said the trial court had not fully finished processing the earlier armed robbery plea before he was sentenced to death in the capital murder case.