On July 17, 1988, three black men entered a convenience store in Cleveland, Mississippi and one ordered a hot dog. As the clerk, 27-year-old Mary Townsend, began to prepare the order, one of the men drew a pistol and announced a robbery. Townsend opened the cash register and one of the men grabbed $185 in cash. The gunman then shot Townsend twice and the robbers fled.
Townsend, who was the wife of a Bolivar County Sheriff’s deputy, survived and was shown three different lineups. She identified Markius Thomas in all three lineups. She was unable to identify anyone else, including 18-year-old Jimmy Bass, who also was in all three lineups.
Two weeks after the robbery, a Cleveland police officer asked 14-year-old Keith Thompson about the crime. Thompson would later testify that the officer paid him $250 to falsely implicate Bass. As a result, Thomas and Bass were indicted by a Bolivar County grand jury on charges of aggravated assault and armed robbery.
Thomas and Bass went on trial in Bolivar County Circuit Court in December 1988. Thompson testified that he saw Bass and Thomas run away from the store after the robbery. Thompson’s sister, Anita, started to testify that Bass had admitted to her that he planned to rob the store, but in the middle of her testimony, she recanted and said she had been coerced by police to implicate Bass.
Bass testified in his own defense, along with several witnesses who said he was home the night of the crime. On December 7, 1988, a jury found both Bass and Thomas guilty of armed robbery and felony assault. A judge sentenced each to 50 years in prison.
In 1992, Bass encountered Keith Thompson in prison and Thompson told him that he had lied on the stand and that a police officer paid him $250 to implicate Bass in the robbery. Bass filed a motion for post-conviction relief, attaching an affidavit from Thompson, but it was denied in 1997.
In 2004, the Innocence Project New Orleans took Bass’s case, and filed another motion for post-conviction relief. The motion disclosed that at the time Keith Thompson testified against Bass at trial, Thompson had as yet undiagnosed schizophrenia and had been arrested as a juvenile numerous times.
The motion said that Thompson was also in violation of the terms of his juvenile parole at the time he gave information to the police, was a prior informant for the police and was paid $250 for his testimony. According to the petition, none of this information was disclosed to the defense prior to Bass’s trial.
In addition, the motion said evidence showed that Thomas had committed a burglary with two other men just hours prior to the robbery, that Bass’s lawyer had failed to try to interview Thompson prior to the trial and that four additional alibi witnesses had been discovered that were never contacted prior to Bass’s trial.
In June 2006, the trial court overturned Bass’s conviction, and ordered a new trial based on Thompson’s statement and new information about the additional suspects for the crime. The prosecution appealed, but in March 2009, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the decision. In March 2010, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Bass and he was released.
– Maurice Possley