Friday, August 10, 2012

John Frierson

Crime Scene Tape
It was hot and muggy in Nicholson, Mississippi, on Satur­day, September 15. 1990. The mercury approached a hundred in much of the state, but down south, particularly in Pearl River County next to the Louisi­ana border, the high humidity of the Gulf Coast made it seem even hotter. By nightfall it began to cool down a bit, but it was still sultry and uncomfortable. It wasn’t a good time to begin a major murder investigation; but, then, there really isn’t a good time to start a murder probe.
It had been a busy evening so far at the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Depart­ment, and one of the deputies on duty that night, puffing on one cigarette after another, didn’t expect things to slow down much as the evening wore on. It was, after all, a Saturday night, and the department had already been called out to settle more than its share of bar fights, domestic squabbles, and robberies. Things could, in all likelihood, only get worse.
It was only minutes before 9:00 p.m. when the call that would ultimately prove to be the worst of the evening came in. At first this latest call had seemed simple enough. It was from a relative of the local Frierson family who said she was worried because she hadn’t been able to reach them by telephone all day. There was supposed to be a Frier­son family reunion for 200 family mem­bers the next day, and the relative had last-minute details to discuss. But the Friersons, who lived just off Mississippi Highway 607 in the community of Nicholson, weren’t answering their phone. It just wasn’t like them. The rela­tive asked the sheriff’s department to send someone out to check on them.
A team of deputies arrived a few min­utes later at Ray Merle “Smokey” Frierson’s small brick home, located on the northwest corner of a NASA buffer zone near the Hancock County line. Ray Frierson had lived there with his wife Mollie since 1973. They liked it there and were well known and well liked throughout the community.
Except for the sounds of crickets and an occasional passing car on Highway 607, everything was quiet — almost too quiet — as the deputies stepped out of their patrol cruisers. The night’s still­ness was made even more eerie by the incessant insect sounds and by the sight of occasional lightning bugs blinking their tails in the pitch black. Making the deputies feel even more ill at ease, no one came outside the house to find out why they were there. Nothing moved in or around the house.
One of the deputies knocked loudly on the door. Nobody answered. The lights stayed dark inside the house. Af­ter several repeated attempts, all futile, the lawmen decided that they had better go inside. Gaining entry through an un­locked door, the deputies began turning on lights as they slowly went from room to room.
When they reached the front bed­room, the deputies reeled back in horror at the atrocity that lay in front of them. An older man, whom the deputies be­lieved to be Ray Frierson, and an older woman, whom they believed to be his wife Mollie, was lying sprawled on the floor, covered in blood. A young boy lay nearby, also covered with blood.
After regaining their composure, the deputies carefully checked the victims for signs of life. They found none. The deputies cautiously retraced their steps out of the bedroom, not wishing to dis­turb anything of evidentiary value.
Before leaving the house, however, the deputies checked the other rooms. It was possible, they reasoned, that addi­tional victims might be in other areas of the house. Speculating that the perpetra­tor might also still be inside, they drew their guns as a precaution.
They soon learned that their reason­ing about possible other victims had been correct. In the second bedroom, they found the partially clad body of a woman, whom they believed to be in her late 30s or early 40s, spread-eagled on the floor. Noting that the victim’s clothing had been ripped or forcibly re­moved, the investigators strongly sus­pected that she had been sexually assaulted, either before or after she was killed.
After making certain that there were no other bodies and that the perpetrator was not on the premises, the deputies cleared the house and reported their grim findings to headquarters. Pearl River County Sheriff Lorance Lumpkin was located and notified of the carnage at the Frierson residence. He instructed that the area be sealed off from all un­authorized personnel and identified as a crime scene. Lumpkin arrived a short time later, accompanied by a medical examiner, a deputy district attorney, and a crime scene technician.
Each of the victims, Sheriff Lumpkin observed, had been shot more than once and in different parts of their bodies.
The older man appeared to have been shot in the back of the head at close range. Tissue, blood, bone, and possibly brain matter had been dispersed about the room as a result of the force of the blast, some of which had traveled sever­al feet from the body. The older woman had been shot in the face, resulting in severe disfigurement. It also appeared that she had been beaten on the head.
The boy, whom the sheriff believed to be in his teens, had also been shot in the head, but with a small-caliber weapon. He also had other wounds to his body, primarily bruises and abrasions. The fe­male victim in the other bedroom had been shot in the abdomen and head, also with a small-caliber weapon.
During a preliminary examination of the house, Lonnie Arrinder of the Mis­sissippi State Crime Laboratory discov­ered two bloody footprints in one of the bedrooms. There was so much blood in the bedrooms that Arrinder couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t more bloody footprints. He also found a 20-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle on the premises. The shotgun had blood and possible tissue fragments adhering to its stock and barrel. Arrinder theo­rized that it might have been used to beat one of the victims, most likely the older woman, in addition to shooting her and others. He also found scattered about articles of bloody clothing, which he carefully placed in paper bags so that the bloodstains could dry.
After the scene was carefully photo­graphed, crime lab technicians collected blood and other bodily fluid samples, which they carefully marked according to source and location. They also vac­uumed for trace evidence of hair and clothing fiber, using separate filter bags for each location, and searched for iden­tifiable latent fingerprints.
During the evening, deputies ferreted out important information from several of Ray Frierson’s relatives. As a result, they eventually had enough information to positively identify the bodies. The bodies in the front bedroom were identi­fied as 61-year-old Ray Frierson, 56­ year-old Mollie Frierson, and 13-year­ old Joshua A. Morrell, the Frierson’s step grandson.
The body in the second bedroom was identified as 38-year-old Pamela Ann Howard. Pamela and Joshua, family members said, were relatives who had lived with the Friersons for some time. Relatives claimed that Pamela and Josh­ua were both retarded, one of the main reasons that Ray and Mollie had taken them in. Sheriff Lumpkin was also told that yet another relative, 17-year-old John Morrell Frierson, nicknamed “John Boy,” lived in the house. No one, however, knew where he could be found. It being a Saturday night and John Boy being a teenager, the lawmen surmised that he was out partying with his friends.
As the lawmen continued questioning family members, they learned that John Boy and Joshua were brothers and that Ray and Mollie Frierson, who had adopted him eight years earlier after his mother was murdered, were John Boy’s step-grandparents. According to police sources, his mother’s body had been discovered in the central part of the state, but her murder was never solved. Pamela Howard was John Boy’s and Joshua’s aunt.
With the help of relatives, a sketchy inventory of the Friersons’ possessions was obtained. Afterward, the detectives determined that the only thing of value that was missing was Mollie Frierson’s 1988 Ford Escort. Because very little money was found in the victims’ clothes or inside the house, the investigators also suspected that cash may have been taken, but they didn’t yet know how much, if any.
With the missing car, an obvious lack of cash on hand, and the possible rape of Pamela Howard, Sheriff Lumpkin and his detectives felt that they had estab­lished clear motives for the murders. The strongest motive of all, however, appeared to be the elimination of wit­nesses. All of the aforementioned were aggravating factors that could bring a death sentence for the perpetrator if convicted of the crimes.
According to Sheriff Lumpkin, cer­tain signs indicated that Pamela Howard had been raped and Mollie Frierson sodomized after having been shot. However, the sheriff wouldn’t elaborate on the specific reasons leading to this con­clusion.
When the criminalists no longer needed the bodies at the crime scene, morgue drivers placed the corpses in­side body bags and removed them one at a time to a waiting van. As a small gathering of onlookers watched from behind barriers, the van left for the morgue where definitive autopsies would be conducted.
While sheriff’s investigators and crime lab technicians searched for clues and collected evidence at the crime scene over the next several hours, the sheriff and several deputies questioned the victims’ acquaintances and relatives in search of clues to the killer’s identity. It wasn’t long before their efforts paid off. One person in particular provided information that ultimately broke the case wide open.
Two days before, the informant told the investigators, Mollie Frierson had expressed concern for her safety, telling a family member that she was afraid John Boy was “going to kill them all.” John Boy, sleuths were told, drank to excess. His drinking sometimes made him violent and abusive, and family members suspected that he also used drugs. Mollie had even told a family member that she planned to take John Boy to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center following the family reunion — if, she added ominously, she “made it through the weekend.”
Investigators in any homicide case al­ways start out looking “close to home” for suspects, and now Sheriff Lumpkin believed he would have to look no fur­ther than John Boy Frierson to find the family’s mass murderer. John Boy, he believed, had both the motive and the opportunity to carry out the killings. The evidence, he hoped, would rule him in or out as a suspect.
Lumpkin and his deputies worked fervently as they gathered leads from John Boy’s friends and acquaintances on where the teenager might be. By the early-morning hours of September 16th, while crime lab technicians continued working at the Frierson house, deputies traced John Boy to a girlfriend’s apartment just outside Picayune, a town only a few miles north of Nicholson. Depu­ties quietly surrounded the apartment complex, then moved in to make the ar­rest.
Frierson was there, all right, but they didn’t have to worry about him putting up a fight. He wasn’t in any shape to make a break for it. When the deputies made their presence known, John Boy staggered into their midst, making no effort to flee. He appeared to be heavily under the influence of drugs and alco­hol. The deputies arrested him at his girlfriend’s apartment without incident. He was taken to the Pearl River County Jail where he was booked on suspicion of murder in connection with the deaths of his family.
Shortly after the suspect’s arrival at the jail, Sheriff Lumpkin and Deputy Joe Stuart took Frierson into an inter­rogation room. The youth looked pale, tired, and weak. He was apparently coming down from his alcohol and drug-induced intoxication. After decid­ing that he had sobered up enough to be fully aware of what was going on, the probers read their suspect the Miranda rights again, after which Frierson agreed to give them a statement. As Sheriff Lumpkin asked questions, Deputy Stuart took notes.
Surprisingly, according to Lumpkin and Stuart, Frierson admitted that he had shot his relatives. He said he was “mad at the world” because Ray Frier­son wouldn’t allow him to go raccoon hunting. Frierson said he took $200 from a purse and wallet that was in the house, but he denied raping his grand­mother and aunt. Afterward, Deputy Stuart typed up the youth’s statement and provided a copy to the district attor­ney’s office.
Meanwhile Dr. Paul McGarry, a New Orleans pathologist, was brought in to conduct the autopsies. A pathology as­sistant prepared the corpses for the post­mortem examinations, which included running an ultraviolet light over the bodies of the female victims in search of semen. Semen appears as bright white under the ultraviolet, thus facilitating its collection by the pathologist. Semen was detected on Pamela Howard’s body, and vaginal swabs were taken. Addi­tional swabs were obtained from other parts of Pamela’s and Mollie’s bodies, just in case trace amounts of semen had been overlooked. These would be com­bined with acid phosphatase, a sensitive enzyme that turns pink when mixed with semen. Following the autopsies, Dr. McGarry reported his findings to Sheriff Lumpkin and Assistant District Attorney Buddy McDonald.
Pamela Howard, said Dr. McGarry, had been shot once in the abdomen and four times in the head with a small-cali­ber weapon. The presence of semen and signs of violence other than the gunshot wounds led Dr. McGarry to believe that Pamela had also been raped.
“Was sexual battery inflicted prior to death’ asked the assistant D.A.
“Yes, it was,” Dr. McGarry replied.
The pathologist explained that he had collected and preserved from the vic­tim’s body semen that could be used for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing. The seminal fluid samples were air-dried and frozen and sent, along with a sample of John Frierson’s blood, to a court-recognized DNA diagnostics lab.
Dr. McGarry found that both Ray and Mollie Frierson had been shot at close range with what he believed to be a 20-gauge shotgun. The pathologist said that Ray had been shot in the head three times with a small-caliber weapon, but it was the shotgun blast to the back of Ray’s head that had caused his death. Ray was already dead when the shots with a small-caliber weapon were in­flicted, said McGarry.
The pathologist determined that Mol­lie Frierson had sustained a gunshot wound to her chin and had subsequently been beaten on the head with a weapon consistent with the shotgun found at the crime scene. McGarry said Mollie had received five powerful blows to the head. The approximate time of the vic­tims’ death was sometime on the morn­ing of September 15th.
McGarry said that Joshua Morrell had been shot three times in the head with a small-caliber weapon. Also pre­sent on his body were several bruises and abrasions, primarily on one of his arms, an elbow, and a shoulder, all of which the pathologist characterized as defensive wounds. He said that the wounds were probably caused when the boy held up his arm as he tried to fend off the attack.
Meanwhile, a DNA diagnostics laboratory in Maryland began processing John Frierson’s blood and the seminal fluid found on and inside Pamela How­ard’s body. Using conventional se­rological typing methods, the lab first determined that the blood type of the se­men found at the crime scene was of the same blood type as John Frierson’s. Had the blood and semen been of different types, Frierson could have been elimi­nated as the suspect. He was not so lucky.
Next, DNA was extracted from the semen collected from Pamela Howard’s body and from Frierson’s blood sam­ples. The DNA strands were then “cut” into small fragments by an enzyme and compared. The result, according to the scientist who conducted the DNA typing, provided an autoradiograph, a ge­netic “print” as unique to each individual as a set of fingerprints. As was expected by the investigators, the DNA extracted from Frierson’s blood and from the semen found inside Pam­ela Howard’s vagina matched.
Adding fuel to the case against the suspect, according to Lonnie Arrinder of the Mississippi State Crime Labora­tory, the two bloody footprints found at the crime scene matched John Frierson’s footprint.
Meanwhile, according to Pearl River County Justice Court Judge Richard Cowart, authorities began receiving a number of threats against Frierson’s life. People were outraged over the sense­less, brutal murders that had been com­mitted in their community, and some were determined to do something about it. Residents couldn’t understand how someone could have so ruthlessly mur­dered such a nice couple as Ray and Mollie Frierson and their family.
As a result of all the threats, when Frierson made his first court appear­ance, he was taken to the Justice Court building in an unmarked police car and was required to lie down in the back- seat. He was ushered by several armed deputies into the courthouse through a side door.
Despite the apparently irrefutable ev­idence stacked against him, Frierson pleaded innocent to four counts of capi­tal murder and asked for a jury trial. De­fense Attorneys Rex Jones of Hattiesburg and William Ducker of Poplarville were appointed to represent him. The judge set Frierson’s trial for the following August, and he continued to be held without bail.
Shortly after Frierson’s arrest, the question of his ability to stand trial and assist in his own defense was brought up. At the request of the defense team, Frierson was sent to the state mental hospital at Whitfield where he under­went extensive psychiatric examina­tions. After subjecting him to a battery of tests and interviews, psychologists and psychiatrists at the hospital deter­mined that he was, in fact, competent to stand trial.
Although Frierson was a juvenile at the time of the slayings, the prosecution sought to have him remanded to adult court over the objections of his defense team. If he was prosecuted through the juvenile system, prosecutors argued, he would be released on his 21st birthday. The severity of the crimes, they argued, demanded a more severe punishment. A judge agreed, and Frierson was ordered to stand trial as an adult.
Because of the publicity and the charged emotions surrounding the mur­ders, Frierson’s trial was moved to Natchez, a town several counties west in Adams County. Jury selection began on Monday, August 12, 1991. After a jury was seated, Judge R.I. Pritchard III ordered that the jury members be se­questered throughout the trial because of the extensive publicity.
Dressed in a black, short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, John Frierson appeared to be in a somber mood as he was led into the Adams County Chancery court­room. His legs were shackled for added security, and spectators were required to pass through a metal detector before en­tering the courtroom.
The jury was led step-by-step through the case by Assistant District Attorney Buddy McDonald, from the time the bodies were found, through the evi­dence gathering and DNA testing, and finally to Frierson’s confession to Sher­iff Lumpkin and Deputy Joe Stuart.
At one point Dr. Paul McGarry, the New Orleans pathologist who had per­formed the autopsies on the victims’ bodies, explained the details of the deaths and the manner in which all the victims were killed. McGarry used sketches to show jurors the points where bullets and shotgun pellets had entered the victims’ bodies. Gruesome color photographs showing how the victims were found were also introduced as evi­dence. Tearful family members were present in the courtroom. Occasional gasps could be heard from spectators who managed to glimpse the photos as they were passed between attorneys, judge, and jury.
Later, the deputies who found the bodies described the locations and man­ner in which the bodies were found. Sheriff Lorance Lumpkin and Deputy Jo Stuart also testified that Frierson agreed to make a statement confessing to the murders after his arrest. The two law­men said they believed Frierson was fully aware of what was going on when they read him his Miranda rights and when he made the incriminating re­marks.
One of the most dramatic moments of the trial came when Frierson took the witness stand in his own defense. Be­cause the state’s case against Frierson was so strong, the best defense strategy seemed to be to simply put the defendant on the stand and try to gain sympa­thy from the jury. Defense Attorney Ducker asked Frierson if he had any­thing to say to the jury.
“I’m sorry,” said Frierson as his voice broke. Speaking softly into the microphone between sobs, Frierson said that the day of the murders seemed like a dream to him. He said he didn’t re­member giving a statement to the law­men. He said that he had been under the influence of drugs and alcohol before he was arrested and had remained intoxi­cated for a while after his arrest.
Responding to questions from De­fense Attorney Rex Jones, Frierson said he could only remember “bits and pieces” of his arrest. He said he didn’t remember telling the officers that he had shot his relatives, took $200 cash, and stole his grandmother’s car. He said that he had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse problems, and that he had only been “straight” for the few months after his arrest.
In closing arguments, Jones main­tained that Frierson’s drug, alcohol, and emotional problems had in effect turned him into a “walking time bomb” that detonated on the morning of the slay­ings. Jones argued that Frierson never received the drug and alcohol rehabilita­tion when he needed it most. “He was a ticking time bomb. The Mississippi ju­venile system failed.
“There was an explosion,” said Jones. “I don’t think he intended to rob them, and I don’t think he intended to commit sexual battery. After hearing the evidence, I think he killed them, but I don’t think he did it while in the com­mission of other crimes.”
Co-counsel Ducker then literally begged the jury to spare Frierson’s life, contending that the defendant might be able to turn his life around and do some­thing constructive someday. He sug­gested that Frierson might be willing to participate in a prison program in which inmates held talks with teenagers warn­ing them about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
In rebuttal, Assistant D.A. McDonald pointed out for the jury that the defense never questioned the DNA testing or other evidence of sexual assault on Pamela Howard, which he said “spoke the loudest”.
“I cannot look at the photographs of the four victims here and feel that the system failed John Frierson,” said McDonald. “If this is not capital mur­der, there has never been capital murder in the state of Mississippi, and there will never be capital murder in the state of Mississippi.” He urged jurors to sen­tence Frierson to death.
On Thursday, August 15, 1991, the jurors announced after three and a half hours of deliberations that they had found John Morrell “John Boy” Frier­son guilty on four counts of capital mur­der. They were, however, unable to agree unanimously on whether to sen­tence Frierson to death by lethal injec­tion or to life in prison. As a result, Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court Judge R.I. Pritchard III was bound by Missis­sippi statutes to sentence Frierson to life in prison for each of the four counts.
Frierson, with his chin resting in his hands, remained emotionless and with­out expression.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said Defense Attorney Ducker afterward. “I am just very thankful that’s the way it came out. The boy did a very terrible thing and he’ll be punished for it for a long time, but I don’t think we’re in the business of killing seventeen-year-olds.”
“We’re disappointed,” said one of several family members of the victims who had been in attendance for the en­tire trial.
“We wish the jury would have been able to return a death sentence verdict,” commented Assistant D.A. McDonald.
Frierson will not be eligible for parole for 40 years, until the year 2031.
Frierson Case Update:
In 2000, barely nine years after being convicted of murdering his family, Frierson and another inmate allegedly killed a fellow inmate, purportedly with a shank — a homemade knife. On January 14, 2008, Frierson was transferred to Colorado Federal Prison for “security reasons.” On May 27, 2008, nearly 18 years after killing his family, “John Boy” Frierson committed suicide by hanging.

1 comment:

  1. I remember this it was the most horrible thing to ever happen in Nicholson where I lived then and is still the most horrible thing to ever happen there