A slap in the face is how Dianne Williams Johnson describes a Baton Rouge judge’s overturning a jury’s unanimous second-degree murder verdict and instead finding Derrick Bland guilty of negligent homicide in the 2013 shooting death of his brother-in-law and her nephew, James “Mucci” Stockton.
Johnson and other relatives of the 40-year-old Stockton, a father of three, have sent letters to state District Judge Trudy White pleading with her to reconsider her decision.
Shirley Gordon, one of Stockton’s aunts, wrote that her nephew had fought and beat cancer twice before being “murdered in cold blood.”
“I had spoken with James earlier that day and he was so happy. I miss those phone calls from my nephew because he would always say something to make me laugh,” Gordon said.
Johnson said she remembers receiving word that Bland’s murder conviction had been overturned.
“I was so crushed,” she states in a Sept. 18 letter to the judge. “My heart ached and my body was numb.”
“Negligent Homicide is a slap in the face!!!!” Johnson wrote.
In a phone interview Friday from her Florida home, Johnson said Bland had been temporarily staying with Stockton as a favor to Bland.
“My nephew was a good guy,” she said. “He (Bland) murdered my nephew in cold blood.”
The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office is taking the case to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who has been the parish’s chief prosecutor since 2009, said he could not recall another instance where a judge overturned a unanimous jury verdict.
“The jury’s unanimous decision is proper, and we will appeal this court’s decision to take away the jury’s unanimous verdict,” he said.
A 12-member East Baton Rouge Parish jury in March convicted Bland of second-degree murder in the July 28, 2013, slaying of Stockton.
But last month, at the urging of Bland’s court-appointed attorneys, White accepted his intoxication defense and overturned the verdict, finding him guilty of the lesser offense of negligent homicide.
Bland, of Baton Rouge, who once faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison, now faces no more than five years behind bars if White’s ruling stands.
Bland, 50, shot Stockton outside a North Lobdell Boulevard apartment during a family gathering.
White, who presided over the jury trial, stated in her ruling that testimony indicated Bland had been drinking heavily all day — primarily gin and vodka — and had not eaten.
Stockton ordered Bland to leave the apartment after the two men argued, so Bland — already armed — walked to a gas station and bought cigarettes. He returned a short time later but stayed outside by a tree, the judge noted.
When Stockton left the apartment, Bland shot him three times. After Stockton fell to the ground, Bland shot him three more times.
In asking White to modify the jury verdict, defense attorneys Erin Mullen and Kina Kimble wrote that Bland was not sober enough to have the specific intent to kill Stockton.
“Without the requisite specific intent to kill, Mr. Bland could be convicted, at most, of negligent homicide,” they stated.
If the judge felt the state proved specific intent, Mullen and Kimble argued, Bland could be found guilty “at worst” of manslaughter.
“The defense proved beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an argument between (Stockton) and Mr. Bland,” they added, “and that the shooting occurred in a time frame that an average intoxicated man would not have ‘cooled off.’”
In her written ruling, White said prosecutors had argued Bland was “lying in wait” before he fired the first three shots, and that he was “coming back for the kill” when he shot Stockton three more times.
The judge said Bland’s attorneys argued the shooting was a reflex action that occurred as a result of his intoxication.
“It was unreasonable for the jury to conclude or infer from Derrick Bland’s own actions that he had the specific intent to kill James Artez Stockton,” she wrote.
White, who indicated she is reluctant to overturn jury verdicts, wrote she could not find sufficient evidence that Bland “voluntarily got drunk so that he could kill” Stockton.
Bland, she noted, had the gun long before any argument took place and before he started drinking at the party.
She said the trial testimony “clearly supports an intoxication defense.”
The judge said the state failed to prove second-degree murder as well as manslaughter, which is punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
White did not respond to a request for comment.