July 29, 2011 8:14:00 PM
JACKSON -- A federal appeals panel has ruled that because of erroneous jury instructions, Quintez Wren Hodges was denied a fair sentencing hearing when he got the death penalty for the slaying of his ex-girlfriend''s brother.
A three-judge panel for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a decision by U.S. District Judge Michael Mills, who vacated Hodges'' death sentence last fall.
Hodges was convicted in 2001 in Lowndes County.
The trial judge told jurors that if they failed to unanimously agree on a punishment, he would have to sentence Hodges to life with the possibility of parole. Mills said that was a mistake by the judge, and the appeals panel agreed.
Mills said Hodges was not entitled to parole, and the judge''s error likely confused the jury.
The attorney general''s office has appealed Mills'' ruling to the 5th Circuit. If left unchallenged, prosecutors would have to go back the Lowndes County Circuit Court for a new sentencing hearing for Hodges.
Attorney General Jim Hood did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hodges'' attorney, Robert McDuff of Jackson, praised the decision.
"It is always important to have a fair trial, and particularly so when the stakes are high and the death penalty is on the table. As the 5th Circuit concluded, the jury was misled in this case, and the sentencing phase of the trial wasn''t fair," McDuff said.
The three-judge panel said the Mississippi Supreme Court also made a mistake when it found the jury instruction error was harmless.
Prosecutors said Hodges shot Isaac Johnson in 1999 after Hodges broke into his ex-girlfriend''s house and Johnson, her brother, was there. Hodges kidnapped the woman and her baby girl.
The 5th Circuit panel said: "It is undisputed that the state trial court erroneously instructed the jury that there was a third sentencing option of life with the possibility of parole.
"It is also undisputed that the court erroneously instructed the jurors that if they could not unanimously agree on punishment, the court ''must sentence the defendant to a term of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole."''
The panel also said Hodges was denied "a reliable sentencing hearing" in violation of his right to due process because Hodges was sentenced after 1995 and ineligible for parole under Mississippi law.
The panel said a prosecutor in closing arguments compounded the error by referring to the incorrect sentencing option of life with parole.
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