Jailer’s convicted killer wins parole

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 18, 2010

Arthur Lee Stevenson, who stabbed to death an elderly jailer before escaping custody here in 1974, has been granted parole by the Mississippi Department of Corrections, a spokesman there confirmed.

Stevenson, 59, has been serving a life sentence for killing A.J. “Holly” Koerper with a knife from the jail kitchen.

Before being released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Stevenson will complete a job training or education program and must have an approved residence, said Tara Booth of the MDOC.

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The family of Koerper, who was 71 and a deputy on duty at the Warren County Jail when he was killed, is “distraught” at the thought of Stevenson’s release, said his granddaughter, Ann Griffin of Vicksburg.

“My heart just fell out of my chest,” she said.

Griffin said the family had been assured that as long as they registered objections at parole hearings, Stevenson would not be released.

The state parole board routinely notifies interested parties, including the district attorney and sheriff, when an inmate is to be considered for parole. But Griffin and her family were not given that notice this time. “We did not even know a hearing was scheduled,” she said.

Warren County victim assistance coordinator Brenda Theriot also said Stevenson’s name did not appear on recent parole-hearing lists sent to the DA’s office.

While state budget shortfalls were not shown to be a direct factor, Dan Turner, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, confirmed “the governor has told the parole board that elderly prisoners who are no longer a threat should receive some preference over prisoners who still may pose some threat.”

Griffin said she was told Stevenson will complete a 120-day pre-release program and then be paroled to Pensacola, Fla., to live with a family member.

Parole Chairman Shannon Warnock, the only member empowered to speak for the five-member panel, was out and did not return messages.

The board approved Stevenson’s parole Feb. 2, Booth said, and MDOC records reflect Stevenson was turned down in a number of previous parole hearings, at least once a year since 2003, most recently in March 2009.

Paul Barrett, who was sheriff when Koerper was killed, is among those who have written letters to the parole board in the past urging them not to grant parole to Stevenson.

“I definitely feel that he shouldn’t be paroled,” said Barrett. “Had the people on the parole board walked into that jail the day I did and seen Mr. Koerper… lying in a pool of blood, I don’t think they would ever have given him parole.” Barrett, who went on to serve 28 years as sheriff, said Koerper, known as “Mr. Holly,” had been hired by the previous sheriff, J.H. Henderson. “I kept him on because he was a good man, like a father to us,” Barrett said. “He was a kind man and we all respected him.”

Sheriff Martin Pace said he also has “adamantly” opposed Stevenson’s release in person and in writing, most recently in January 2009.

“He killed an unarmed law-enforcement officer in the line of duty,” Pace said. “He pleaded guilty to capital murder and received a sentence of life without parole, and that’s the sentence he should be required to serve.”

Stevenson was serving a misdemeanor sentence in the Warren County Jail for robbery when the killing took place around 6:30 a.m. on July 6, 1974. He was a trusty at the jail, which gave him out-of-cell work privileges.

That morning, Stevenson went into the jail kitchen, got a 12-inch knife and stabbed Koerper at least 26 times, including slitting his throat and severing or nearly severing both hands, Griffin said. Charles Riles, who was coroner at the time, testified in Stevenson’s trials that the victim was “butchered.”

The stabbing took place near the office area of the jail as it existed before the annex was added in 1979 that now serves as the main jail area. When Koerper was dead, Stevenson then unlocked the cell of one of the women inmates and left with her through the door on the Cherry Street side to a residence on Farmer Street, where he was captured by Vicksburg police officer Keith Little a short time later.

“In nearly 24 years in law enforcement that was the worst case I was ever connected with,” Little, now retired, said Wednesday. The crime was discovered by Dr. Charles Ramsay, a dentist with an office nearby who often stopped for coffee with Mr. Holly.

A Warren County grand jury was convened days after Stevenson’s arrest and issued a murder indictment.

Three trials followed in four years. The first, just weeks after the arrest, ended in a mistrial with jurors deadlocked over the verdict.

The second, a week later, resulted in a guilty verdict, and Stevenson was sentenced to death. That verdict was overturned by the state Supreme Court, which said presiding Judge Ben Guider should have moved the trial out of Warren County.

At Stevenson’s third trial, held in Lee County in 1978, he again was found guilty and sentenced to death. A successful appeal led to a trial being scheduled for Sharkey County, but Stevenson instead pleaded guilty to capital murder and accepted a life sentence, agreeing not to seek parole.

“My grandmother had told Paul Barrett, ‘I don’t mind you stopping the death-penalty pursuit as long as he never gets out of prison,’” Griffin said.

The guilty plea also eventually was overturned because Mississippi did not at the time have a sentence of life without parole on its books.

Finally, a fourth trial was held here in 1997 with jurors bused in from Webster County. Stevenson again was found guilty but sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. Stevenson’s court-appointed attorney, Eugene Perrier of Vicksburg, said at the time he did not expect an appeal or parole.

“My information is they are not granting parole for anyone convicted of murder or capital murder,” Perrier was quoted as saying.

That has changed.

Griffin said when the family called to protest the decision, a parole board member told her Stevenson has served more than 35 years.

“I told them, ‘And my grandfather’s been dead for (more than 35) years, too.’”

Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com