Tyler’s case not enough to put trust back in judges

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 17, 2008

It depends.

When the public’s consensus is that judges are being too lenient in imposing sentences, politicians react by imposing mandatory minimums.

When the public’s consensus is that judges are being too harsh, politicians react by reining them in.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The case of Tyler Wayne Edmonds, still a teenager, is illustrative.

Of course, there’s more than a collection of statutes involved. For Tyler and his family it’s personal. And that’s also true for state Rep. George Flaggs Jr., D-Vicksburg, whose career and legislative specialty has been juvenile justice. He met and talked with Tyler and studied his case.

Authorities in Oktibbeha County arrested Tyler in 2003 after he told them he had helped his half sister, Kristi Fulgham, shoot and kill her husband, Joey Fulgham, as he slept in their home in Longview. Tyler was 13, an honor student and had no history of violence or antisocial behavior.

During his initial conversation with authorities, Tyler was under the impression, perhaps encouraged by Kristi, that because he was a child, his taking responsibility would result in a “slap on the wrist” for him and that punishment for Kristi would be diluted. She would escape a possible death penalty (authorities theorized the killing was part of a robbery) and she might even be able to stay home and raise her children.

There was no indication, other than what Tyler said, that he knew about or participated in the killing.

As it turned out, his impression was wrong. Tired of hearing constituents complain about how young criminals were not being punished, the Legislature had created a process for “certifying” youths accused of felonies to stand trial as adults. Further, certification is “automatic” when a violent crime is alleged.

Tyler recanted his confession, but was tried anyway, convicted and started serving Mississippi’s “automatic” sentence of life for murder, with no parole eligibility until the age of 65. The judge has no say.

The state Supreme Court found error in Tyler’s trial and Oktibbeha prosecutors presented the case to a new jury in October. Tyler was found innocent. Now 18 and a five-year veteran of state prison, his case has reached what almost everyone agrees is a just ending. Kristi Fulgham, by the way, is on death row.

“It is wonderful that Tyler has been acquitted and can move on with his life,” Flaggs wrote in a news release. “However, we must seize this moment to prevent other children from being imprisoned for life by an unfair justice system.”

As a former chairman of the House Juvenile Justice Committee, Flaggs has been an advocate for the so-called Missouri System that uses community-based interventions to, in essence, stop kiddie crime before it starts. That is an academic approach, and it’s expensive, too. His colleagues don’t disagree — but haven’t come up with the money. Flaggs has also proposed a law to make an exception to the automatic life sentence when youths are convicted of murder. It would have made them eligible for parole at 18 — but wasn’t even brought up for committee discussion.

The consensus, for now, in the Mississippi Legislature, is that when it comes to felonies and juveniles any chance that a judge might show sympathy has to be taken out of the picture. That makes judges robots, more or less, but lawmakers think it’s the right thing to do.

The pendulum, however, will swing.

And it shouldn’t take too many more cases like Tyler Wayne Edmonds’ to show that those closest to the case might be in the best position to mete out justice — even if the public won’t always agree.