July 27, 2017 10:46:27 AM
One West Point resident was working in a downtown salon Wednesday when she heard the man who allegedly shot her uncle would be released from custody without standing trial.
The resident, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns for her safety, said her uncle was one of three West Point police officers Steven Jessie Harris allegedly shot in October 2005 in a gunfight on Highway 45 Alternate. The gunfight followed multiple attempted carjackings by Harris, according to previous reporting by The Dispatch.
Harris was charged with murder in the 2005 shooting death of his father and two counts of kidnapping, along with aggravated assault on law enforcement. Two mental evaluations, however, have found him incompetent to stand trial.
Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott said Harris, after spending 12 years in the Clay County jail and almost six months at East Mississippi State Hospital, will be released at an undisclosed date in the near future.
"We know it's going to be soon," Scott said. "(Hospital personnel) have basically said they've done with him all they could do, so it could come at any day."
The resident at the beauty salon said she fears freeing Harris could put West Point's citizens in danger.
"Knowing that he was in jail for murder and (will be) released with mental issues, I don't think it's safe for our community," she said. "He could go off at any moment like he did before."
Scott Colom, district attorney for Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Noxubee counties, said the charges against Harris were dropped last year after his case was moved from criminal court to chancery court and a second mental evaluation by East Mississippi State Hospital affirmed Harris was not mentally competent to stand trial.
A previous evaluation in 2008 drew the same conclusion.
"Doctors determined he was incompetent to stand trial and his competence could not be restored," Colom said. "Once the doctor makes that finding, and it's accepted by the court, the DA cannot prosecute him."
Colom said, according to court orders issued after Harris' first mental evaluation, Harris should have been committed to a long-term mental health facility, but he wasn't.
"The sheriff mentioned to me he was still in jail and had been there for several years," Colom said. "I knew that was not right, so we moved to have him committed."
Harris remained at the Clay County Jail until Special Chancery Judge Thomas B. Storey ruled last year Harris should be transferred to a mental health institution.
Harris was then sent to East Mississippi State Hospital for temporary care.
"What we need to have is a longer term mental health facility, so people can get the treatment they need and so we can also protect the public," Colom said.
"We're not happy with it," Scott said of Harris' release. "There's no justice in it for the victims of this thing -- the three guys who were shot and his own father who was killed.
"Legislators have got to realize that we've got a problem on our hands," he added. "We need some type of long-term facility in the state of Mississippi because we're dealing with so many more mental problems than we've ever had in the past."
State Hospital system
Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield operates 405 hospital beds, and East Mississippi State Hospital has 125 adult beds, all of which are occupied.
According to Chancery Clerk Lisa Neese, Mississippi's state hospitals theoretically have long-term care facilities, but lack of resources mean hospitals cannot serve patients for more than a few weeks at a time.
Neese, who processes the paperwork for cases like Harris', said hospital officials tell her office to inform families of potential patients that long-term care options are not available at state facilities.
"There's no such thing as long-term care because there are so many people who need a bed," Neese said. "We have to take turns.
"There are so many people out there that need drug, alcohol and mental health care," she added. "We're doing the best we can."
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