Letter: D.A. responds to Mardis "deal" in Mickey Wright case

Below is a letter written by Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons regarding the disposition of the Dale Mardis murder trial:

April 16, 2007

Many citizens have questioned our disposition of the case against Dale Mardis through a conviction for second-degree murder, with a sentence of fifteen years with no parole, rather than seeking a conviction for first degree murder.  While we have had an opportunity to comment on the decision in the news media, it is difficult to convey why we made our decision in a single quote or sound bite.

Our decisions about all cases, including this one, are driven by two factors - (1) the evidence we have available to us and (2) state law.  In each case, we look at the evidence we have and decide what violation, if any, of our state criminal laws has occurred.  No other factors govern our decisions. These are the rules under which all prosecutors must operate in our American criminal justice system, whether they are elected or appointed.

In the Mardis case, in order to ethically proceed with a trial for first degree murder, we had to have sufficient evidence to prove that Mardis killed code enforcement officer Mickey Wright in an intentional, premeditated act.  We believed we would have this evidence when we initially sought and received from the grand jury a first degree murder indictment.  As we prepared for trial, however, it became obvious we could, in fact, expect testimony that would undermine the position that the killing of Mickey Wright was a premeditated act and that our witnesses would not testify at trial as we had earlier anticipated.

Even with the change in proof, we did feel we had sufficient proof to proceed with a second degree murder charge, which is the knowing (but not premeditated) killing of another. The case was resolved in accordance with the proof we had.

Also, in resolving the case, we took into account that, had we gone to trial, the verdict could have been voluntary manslaughter.  It is a lesser offense than any murder and is based upon the intentional or knowing killing of another in a state of passion. It is also possible that Mr. Mardis could have been acquitted entirely on the basis of self defense, a theory that some anticipated testimony would have supported.

We have a no plea bargaining policy or "No Deals" policy for the violent crimes of first degree murder, second degree murder, especially aggravated robbery, aggravated robbery, aggravated rape, carjacking, and attempted first degree murder. Exceptions to the policy are granted when we have factual and/or ethical circumstances that obligate us to make an exception.  Both occurred in this case, which obligated us to forego the first degree murder indictment and seek a second degree murder conviction.  Factually, we did not have the evidence we needed to support premeditation.  Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, it is unethical to prosecute a charge when the prosecutor knows the charge is not supported by the evidence.

As part of the second degree murder guilty plea, Dale Mardis agreed to tell us what he had done with Mickey Wright's body.   We intended this condition to benefit the Wright family, so they would know what happened to the body of their loved one. Instead, his disclosure revealed a horrible series of events to dispose of the body, which doubtless increased their pain.  But even if we had known earlier what happened to Mickey Wright's body, this would not have helped us prove premeditation under state law.

Our office always talks with a victim's family when we resolve a case in this way. I regret that we were unable to convince the Wright family that our decision was the correct one, given all the circumstances, including the fact that we could not proceed on first degree murder and the possibility that Mardis would serve less prison time or none at all if we went to trial.  We care about victims and their families and hope they agree with our decisions, but sometimes they prefer an outcome that we cannot ethically achieve.

A number of citizens have noted to me in recent days that we need tougher standard sentences for second degree murder. I agree, especially when the murder involves use of a gun, as was apparently true in this case.

Legislation is pending before the Tennessee General Assembly right now that would add ten mandatory years to a second degree murder conviction involving use of a gun.  Had that legislation been in effect, Dale Mardis would be facing 25 years in prison without parole.  The prime sponsor in the Senate is Senator Mark Norris, and Representative John DeBerry is its prime sponsor in the House of Representatives.

We must base our decisions on the evidence and the law. Sometimes, that does not bring the result that is popular.   But the fact that we operate under the rule of law, not at the instigation of public opinion, guarantees equal treatment for all.  We will continue to pursue the guilty in accordance with the facts of each case and our state laws.