An anti-death penalty group says the testimony of a controversial forensic
dentist helped put Larry Matthew Puckett where he is today: facing death by
lethal injection in a matter of hours.
But the state attorney general's office and others say Puckett will pay with
his life for the life he took more than 15 years ago. Puckett, 35, is scheduled
to be put to death today a little after 6 p.m. for the 1995 sexual assault and
murder of Rhonda Hatten Griffis, 28, a mother of two from Forrest County.
In a rally Monday at the state Capitol , Mississippians Educating for Smart
Justice, which opposes the death penalty, asked Gov. Phil Bryant to commute
Puckett's death sentence to life in prison without parole.
The group said it is also making a similar request for William Mitchell, who is
scheduled to be put to death Thursday for the 1995 rape and murder of store
clerk Patty Milliken, 35, who was killed in Harrison County.
The anti-death penalty group said it has collected more than 5,000 signatures
on a petition asking Bryant to commute the sentences.
"The governor and his staff are currently reviewing the facts in these cases
and have no further comment at this time," Bryant's spokesman, Mick Bullock,
said Monday after the anti-death penalty rally.
About 50 people gathered in the 1st floor rotunda of the state Capitol for the
"We are here to oppose as a whole the death penalty," said Benjamin Russell of
But Jackson resident Ann Pace, whose 22-year-old daughter, Charlotte Murray
Pace, was killed by serial killer Derrick Todd Lee in 2002 in Louisiana, said
the death penalty isn't something that is morally wrong.
Pace said if she would have known the rally was taking place she would have
been there with her signs in favor of the death penalty when it is judicially
"It's not a good thing, it's a tough thing you do to protect innocent people,"
Pace said of carrying out executions.
Jim Craig, an attorney for death row inmates, said at the rally that Puckett
and Mitchell didn't get fair trials. Craig also criticized one of the state's
expert witness at Puckett's trial, forensic dentist Michael West. Puckett's
attorneys have filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of blocking
West's testimony in trials came under scrutiny after his testimony helped send
two men to prison (one to death row) who were later found to be innocent and
Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both of Noxubee County, were cleared after
each spent more than 15 years behind bars for rape-murders they did not commit.
In each case, West testified he found those men's bite marks on the victims.
In Puckett's case, West and forensic pathlogist Dr. Steven Hayne testified
during Puckett's trial that the wound patterns on the victim's back were
consistent with that of a club.
Prosecutors said Puckett, then-19, used a club instrument to beat Griffis to
Griffis was sexually assaulted and killed in her home on Oct. 14, 1995. On that
day, Griffis' mother, Nancy Hatten, heard a "scream and a thud" coming from her
daughter's house next door and found Puckett inside holding a club, court
records said. Puckett went after the mother with the club, but Griffis' husband
had just arrived and Puckett fled after a brief struggle, court records said.
Griffis' husband went to get a gun and found his wife's body.
Puckett was caught 2 days later. He told investigators he had gone to the
Griffis' house to burglarize it, and he claimed Griffis' husband killed the
woman in a jealous rage.
"We believe Matt didn't do it," his mother, Mary Puckett, said.
But Nancy Hatten has said Puckett killed her daughter. She said he was caught
in the house, and Griffis' husband wasn't on the premises at the time.
Craig also said Puckett, who is white, was put on trial for his life in front
of a jury hand-selected by the state by striking African- American jurors, who
tend to oppose the death penalty. But he said prosecutors kept a juror who
could barely read English.
Craig said Mitchell has a long history of mental illness, including being
diagnosed with schizophrenia and going into psychotic states.
Mitchell had been out of prison on parole for less than a year for a 1975
murder when he was charged with raping and killing Milliken.
Milliken's body was found under a bridge. She had been strangled, beaten,
sexually assaulted, and repeatedly run over by a vehicle, according to court
Mississippians Educating for Smart Justice said, if Puckett isn't given a
reprieve, its members and others will rally at 5:30 p.m. today at Smith Park in
downtown Jackson and there will be a rally at the State Penitentiary at
Parchman where the execution is scheduled. A similar rally will be conducted in
both locations Thursday for Mitchell if his execution goes forward, Russell
said. (source: Clarion-Ledger)