Accuracy in Media

A Vice “explainer” that told readers why a Mississippi convict who was once on death row for murder and is getting parole after serving 31 years, ignores the real reason why the man is still in jail by misstating in multiple ways the state statute that was used to keep him detained.   

Frederick Bell, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, and who twice had his sentence reduced, is eligible for parole. Parole was granted by the Mississippi Parole Board in August. 

“Bell was supposed to be granted his freedom on Sept. 26. But thanks to an obscure law requiring notice of his release to be published in the local newspaper, his release was delayed indefinitely at the last possible moment,” said Vice. 

Vice called the issue “a little-known Mississippi technicality.”  

Vice contends that because the community wasn’t notified of Bell’s release, he might not get out of jail at all. 

But in fact, the parole board didn’t follow the law regarding what needed to be done even to consider Bell’s parole. 

The Mississippi state statute, § 47-7-17, cited in the Mississippi county paper, the Grenada Star, by opponents of Bell’s release says:

“No application for parole of a person convicted of a capital offense shall be considered [editor’s emphasis] by the board unless and until notice of the filing of such application shall have been published at least once a week for two (2) weeks in a newspaper published in or having general circulation in the county in which the crime was committed.”

Such a notice was not run in a county newspaper that qualified- in this case, the Grenada Star. And the family of Bell’s victim, with the help of Mississippi state Sen. Angela Hill, R, notified the state’s Attorney General, who prevented the parole, says the Star. 

Over and above the previously mentioned misstatement of the law, Vice also misinterprets what the parole laws in Mississippi are meant to accomplish.  

“Some 29 years later, after decades of appeals and evaluation, the Mississippi parole board ruled that Bell would be better served living the rest of his life out of prison and under parole supervision,” said Vice. 

Well, sure, Bell would be better served. But the parole laws aren’t written for the service of convicted criminals, but rather for the community as a whole. 

That is the whole justification for such newspaper notifications under Mississippi state law. 

Vice seems confused. 

Parole is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, or a pardon or a reward to convicts for good conduct. 

Rather the decision for parole is taken in “the best interest of society.” 

Parolees, as such, are still under the supervision of the prisons, says the Mississippi state statutes.  

Paroles are “ordered only for the best interest of society, not as an award of clemency; it shall not be considered to be a reduction of sentence or pardon,” says Mississippi § 47-7-17, which follows with: 

“Every offender while on parole shall remain in the legal custody of the department from which he was released and shall be amenable to the orders of the board.”

That means that the parole board can order a person back to prison at any time, for any reason, to fulfill the remainder of their sentence. 

The state statute, thus, contemplates that the community affected by the parole needs to be notified in advance so they can prepare to testify in front of the parole board whether such a release is indeed in the “best interest of society.” 

Given that the board is unlikely to change their minds on the release of Bell, Mississippi state Sen. Hill, who championed the cause of no parole for the prisoner, says that she “believes the delay will last between 30 days and six weeks” and Bell will be released on parole at that time, according to the Grenada Star.  

But for now, it seems that Bell staying in jail, at least until the state laws regarding parole are followed.

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