On January 31, 2013, EJI won a ruling from the Mississippi Supreme Court ordering a new trial for Dante Evans, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for an offense when he was just 14 years old.
Dante Evans grew up in a violent and chaotic household where his father was the source of extraordinary domestic violence and abuse, including two incidents where the father attempted to kill Dante’s mother in front of her children. Dante was affected by the violence he experienced and witnessed: at seven or eight, he was hospitalized for depression and diagnosed with a chronic trauma disorder; and at 10 or 11, he was sent to the hospital because he was suicidal. His parents permanently separated after his father tried to run his mother over with his car.
In early 2007, Dante was sent to live alone with his father in Mississippi. There was evidence that his father beat and threatened to kill him. When Dante asked school officials for help, they told Dante’s father and then sent Dante home with him. When they got home, Dante was beaten by his father and subjected to more threats and violence. The next day, school officials saw bruises on Dante and made a complaint to the Department of Human Services, but no action was taken before Dante was accused of shooting his father. Dante was arrested and charged with murder. He had just turned fourteen and had no prior criminal history.
Dante was automatically tried as an adult. At trial, he argued imperfect self-defense, which required him to show that he fired the gun because he truly believed his actions were necessary to avoid death or bodily harm. But jurors were not allowed to consider Dante’s young age or allowed to hear important testimony about the abuse and trauma he suffered. Dante was convicted and automatically sentenced to life imprisonment.
EJI argued on appeal that Dante, who was too poor to hire his own expert, was entitled to funds to hire a defense expert on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), who could explain to the jury how Dante’s age and trauma background impacted his belief about his need to protect himself from his abusive father.
The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed, finding that “Dante lacked a necessary component to his defense – an expert who could explain to a jury how a child’s state of mind may be affected when suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. This lack of expert testimony deprived the jury of the information needed to properly understand the evidence regarding whether Dante’s PTSD affected his mental state at the time of the shooting.”
The court found the trial judge mistakenly denied Dante’s request for expert assistance and granted him a new trial.
EJI took on Dante’s case as part of our national effort to represent 13- and 14-year-old children sentenced to die in prison. EJI previously won a new trial for a 13-year-old child who, like Dante, had been sentenced to die in prison in Mississippi.