The Mississippi Supreme Court yesterday reversed the capital murder conviction of EJI client Demarious Banyard and ordered a new trial for Demarious, who was the only 13-year-old in the state of Mississippi serving a life without parole sentence.
The Supreme Court found that the trial judge in Hinds County erred when he refused to give the defense’s requested jury instruction on duress. At trial, the defense presented evidence that Demarious did not want to participate in the crime, a robbery and shooting of a pizza delivery man. Demarious testified that he became involved only because he was scared of his 19-year-old co-defendant, whose threatening words and actions caused Demarious to fear for his own life.
Although the Mississippi Court of Appeals had previously found that a duress instruction was not required at Demarious’s trial, the state’s Supreme Court agreed with EJI’s arguments and reversed the lower court, stating in its order, “The jurors are the judges of the credibility of witnesses, not the appellate courts.”
The court further held that the trial court unconstitutionally shifted the burden of proof when it instructed the jurors that in order to find Demarious not guilty, they had to “unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is not guilty . . . .” The state Supreme Court called this an obvious error in that “[i]t is axiomatic that the burden of proof never shifts to a defendant in a criminal trial.”
EJI attorneys argued the case of Demarious Banyard on June 14, 2010. This case is part of EJI’s national effort to represent 13- and 14-year-old children sentenced to die in prison.