The law is a tedious thing. There’s no shortage of bizarre, outdated local laws throughout the United States. Did you know it’s illegal to run out of gas while driving in Youngstown, Ohio? Trust us, there are more odd laws where that came from. In Mississippi, an obscure state law is keeping a prisoner behind bars indefinitely.
Frederick Bell Has Spent 31 Years Behind Bars
On May 6, 1991, 19-year-old Frederick Bell entered a convenience store in Grenada County, Mississippi armed with a .22-caliber pistol. He and his acquaintance, Anthony Doss, planned to rob the establishment. It’s unclear when or why things when south, but Bell shot the cashier, 21-year-old Bert Bell (of no relation to the perpetrator) nine times. He fled with a .38 caliber pistol, a box of bullets, and a bag of cash.
Bell left the scene with three other men. They made their getaway to Memphis, Tennessee, where Bell decided to rob yet another store. He shot another cashier, 20-year-old Tommy White, in the process. The four men were eventually arrested at a Memphis residence. After two years of due process, the courts found Bell guilty of capital murder—meaning he would be put to death.
For 20 years, Bell’s legal team repeatedly appealed his death sentence, sending the prisoner for countless evaluations. In 2013, the state changed Bell’s sentence to life in prison, declaring that his mental state left him ineligible for capital punishment. Only two years later, Bell was deemed eligible for parole. Finally, this August, the parole board authorized his release from prison.
“In our opinion, Bell has been rehabilitated, and at this point, we feel that parole supervision will be more beneficial than further incarceration,” Chairman Jeffery Belk wrote in a statement released on August 25. It’s clear that this decision wasn’t made lightly, so there’s been some confusion as to why Bell is still sitting behind bars. As it turns out, Bell’s release has been delayed indefinitely due to a longstanding Mississippi law.
Frederick Bell’s Release Delayed By Red Tape
In Mississippi, before an inmate convicted of a capital crime can be released on parole, a newspaper local to the area where the crime was committed must run a notice of parole for two consecutive weeks prior to the inmate’s release. From our research, it looks like Mississippi is the only state with a formal law of this nature. While it’s not widely known, the law is still strictly adhered to in the state.
The practice stands so that the community has a chance to provide their input on the parole board’s decision. As it says in the official Mississippi State Parole Board Policies & Procedures, the board takes “community opposition” into consideration when deeming an inmate eligible for release.
“Any inmate convicted of a capital offense shall not be (initially) considered for parole until notice concerning his/her possible parole is published at least once a week for two (2) weeks in a newspaper published and having general circulation in the county where the crime was committed,” the law states.
However, this process has been at a standstill for Bell. Despite being approved for release in late August, the local Grenada County paper, the Grenada Star, still hasn’t run his parole notice. The paper’s publisher, Adam Prestridge, told Vice News that he has yet to receive any word from the parole board. Until the board gives his paper the go-ahead, there isn’t anything he can do.
Frederick Bell’s Future Is Uncertain
Sen. Angela Hill told a local radio show that she was made aware of the hold-up. “Over the weekend, we confirmed that the notice was not run in the local paper where the murder occurred, as required,” Hill noted. “We contacted the Attorney General’s Office, and the Attorney General’s Office indicated to us that she had contacted the parole board and that he would not be released unless or until the proper notification to the community was run in the local paper.”
It’s unclear why the parole board hasn’t moved forward with the newspaper notice, but the longer it waits, the longer it will be before Bell’s release. “If we receive something by our deadline of 5 p.m. on Thursday, it would run the next immediate Wednesday, as we are a weekly publication. It would run for two consecutive weeks, 30 days prior to his release,” Prestridge told Vice.
Yet, even if the board does eventually send notice, there’s still the obstacle of community judgement. There’s been significant community opposition to Bell’s release. The victims’ families and state workers alike have been outspoken against the parole board’s decision. As the case stands right now, this publishing delay has been the only thing holding back the floodgates. Once the parole board opens the channel of community input, it will likely be pressured to reconsider its initial decision.