Meridian Star

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March 19, 2012

2 executions scheduled this week in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi authorities are preparing to execute two men this week: a one-time Eagle Scout convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his former boss' wife and a paroled murderer convicted of raping and beating a woman and then killing her by running her over with his car.

Larry "Matt" Puckett, 35, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday for the 1995 death of Rhonda Hatten Griffis of Forrest County. William Mitchell, 61, is scheduled for execution Thursday in the death of Patty Milliken, who was killed in Harrison County the same year.

Puckett had become an Eagle School in high school and graduated just months before he was charged with killing Griffis, a 28-year-old mother of two. He was preparing to enter the Navy at the time.

Griffis was sexually assaulted and killed in her home on October 14, 1995. On that day, Griffis' mother, Nancy Hatten, heard a "scream and a thud" coming from her daughter's house next door and found Puckett inside holding a club, court records said. Puckett went after the mother with the club, but Griffis' husband had just arrived and Puckett fled after a brief struggle, court records said.

Griffis' husband went to get a gun and found his wife's body.

Puckett was caught two days later. He told investigators that he had gone to the Griffis' house to burglarize it, and he claimed Griffis' husband killed the woman in a jealous rage. Puckett's friends and family also say he is innocent and started online petitions to collect signatures to support him.

Griffis' mother said it doesn't matter what Puckett says about being innocent: "He did it."

"I caught him in her house with the club in his hand," Hatten told The Associated Press. "Her husband wasn't anywhere on the premises at the time. He drove up later."

Hatten described her daughter as a woman who deeply loved her husband and children and stayed busy taking care of them.

An only child, Griffis was nearly finished with college when she became pregnant and dropped out to make a home. She hoped someday to finish her degree in social work at the University of Southern Mississippi.

"She loved us and helped us and did what she could do for us," Hatten said. "She was always a joy to us."

Puckett was sentenced to death on Aug. 5, 1996. He has spent some of his time on death row writing essays for websites and contemplating his death.

"Now picture yourself surrounded by big burly men with firm grips on you as they direct you to the execution chamber. The excitement and base fear course through you like no other time in your life. You sweat, you pant, you want them to stop. They won't, they can't, the whole process is inexorable," he wrote. "Ironically, at the moment of your death your body proves to you are the most alive."

Puckett filed a petition Wednesday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block his execution. Puckett's lawyers argued that prosecutors kept blacks off the jury and his former attorneys never properly challenged his conviction and sentence on those grounds during his appeals.

Puckett is white. The jury was all white.

Puckett's attorney, Keir Weyble, said "there were real, serious constitutional violations at Matt's trial — the kind that usually require reversal and re-trial."

"Among other things, the proof of race discrimination in the selection of the jury is overwhelming, and the state has never even seriously contested it," Weyble said.

Glenn Swartzfager, an attorney for Mitchell, said in an email Friday evening that he planned to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block the execution. He declined further comment.

Mitchell, 61, had been out prison on parole for less than a year for a 1975 murder when he was charged with raping and killing Milliken, a 38-year-old store clerk.

As a young adult, Mitchell had served in the Army but by the 1990s, he had a long criminal record and had spent much of his adult life behind bars. He was charged twice with beating women in 1973. In 1974 he was charged with killing a family friend and stabbing her daughter.

On Nov. 21, 1995, Milliken disappeared after walking out of the Majik Mart convenience store where she worked in Biloxi to have a cigarette with Mitchell. Her body was found the next day under a bridge. She had been "strangled, beaten, sexually assaulted, and repeatedly run over by a vehicle," according to court records.

Dr. Paul McGarry performed the autopsy and testified that there were five tire tracks on her body.

"According to McGarry, Milliken apparently lived long enough to experience the crushing injuries that ruptured her kidney, liver, and spleen; broke almost every rib; broke her spine; broke her collarbone; and, tore open her lungs and heart vessels," court records said.

The AP was unsuccessful in attempts to find and interview Milliken's relatives.

Executions in Mississippi take place at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman at 6 p.m. on the date for which they are scheduled.

An anti-death penalty group called Mississippians Educating for Smart Justice is planning a rally Monday at the state Capitol for the men.

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