Saturday, June 26, 2004

Charge cut in slaying of immigrant - The Clarion-Ledger

Charge cut in slaying of immigrant - The Clarion-Ledger

Charge cut in slaying of immigrant

Teen enters plea to manslaughter; potential juror bias cited

By Marquita Brown

Concern about potential jury bias led prosecutors to reduce a Canton teenager's capital murder charge to manslaughter in the death of a Mexican immigrant, a prosecutor said.

Deals also have been offered to three other Canton teenagers charged in the shooting death of Juan Contreras, said Assistant District Attorney Randy Harris.

"Considering that Mr. Contreras was either a resident alien or an illegal alien, it was hard to judge how a Madison County jury would respond to evidence seeking the death penalty against a local 16-year-old," Harris said when asked why the charge was reduced. "I just don't know at this time whether or not our citizens might harbor some sort of bias toward someone who is in this country illegally."
Contreras, 43, who worked at a chicken processing plant in Canton, was shot June 19, 2003, during an armed robbery at his home in the Westside Trailer Park outside Canton.

Eddie Clark, 16 when charged, pleaded guilty to manslaughter last week and was sentenced to 20 years, Harris said.

Harris said he would rather "ensure that Eddie Clark is off the streets for 20 years than take a chance."

There was a possibility of a mistrial or an acquittal, Harris said.

"I didn't want to be the first to test the waters. It only takes one juror to vote against death, and it might be difficult to find 12 jurors totally without some bias toward an illegal alien."

Clark's attorney, Edna Stringer, could not be reached.

Harris would not say what offers had been made to Jermail Clark, 13, and Cortez Collins and Mario Clark, both 15, who are still in jail awaiting trial. They will most likely be tried by the end of the year, Harris said. If convicted, they could face life in prison without parole. Eddie Clark, Jermail Clark and Mario Clark are all related.

Regardless of who committed the crime, "they should be punished," said Wanya Williams, 22, a Canton resident. "(Contreras is) a person. He didn't have to be killed."

The situation is an example of a need for dialogue about immigration and its impact in the United States, said Eric Griffin, associate professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Millsaps College. Griffin has visited Mexico numerous times.

"(Immigration) gets translated very often as a foreign invasion," Griffin said. "It's a much more complex situation."

Feelings of bias toward immigrants "essentially tend to stand in the way of dialogue and real solutions," he said.

Immigrants, illegal or not, "get an opportunity to get things some people have," Williams said. "They're getting paid U.S. dollars. They can go to school and make something out of themselves."

But Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrants' Rights Alliance, said immigrants are denied many rights that others enjoy, such as banking. "That has made the immigrants especially vulnerable to robbery," Chandler said.

Immigrants also are worried that "every law enforcement officer is going to put them in a situation where they will be deported," he said.

Stephanie Ragland, mother of Mario Clark, and Glory Clark, mother of Jermail Clark, told The Clarion-Ledger during an interview last year after their sons' arrests that neither teen was capable of committing murder.

"If I have to die to prove that they didn't kill anybody, I will go all the way," Ragland said then.

Jermail Clark, who has been in special education all of his life, "is too scared to participate in a fight," Glory Clark had said. He never wanted to be involved with violence, she said.


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