At 11:20 p.m. on June 3, 2004, 32-year-old Elicia Hughes, an elementary school teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, was awakened by several popping sounds, and then the home’s security alarm went off. She walked to the front of the house and found the front door open. She then saw her 32-year-old husband, Brian, lying dead on the floor in the adjacent den. He had been shot several times.
Police responded almost immediately, alerted by the security alarm company, and quickly concluded that an intruder had come to the home and shot Brian when he opened door. The gun was never recovered and there were no immediate suspects, although investigators determined that Brian had been having extramarital affairs with two other women, one of whom had a child with him who died shortly after birth, not long before the murder.
As a matter of routine, Elicia’s hands were swabbed for later testing for gunshot residue.
Elicia came under suspicion because police believed that if an intruder shot Brian, the security alarm would have gone off before the shots were fired, but Elicia said she heard the shots before the alarm went off. Several months later, when a gunshot residue test on the swabs taken of Elicia’s hands revealed residue on the back of her hands, police charged her with the murder.
She was arrested on March 9, 2005 and went on trial in Hinds County Circuit Court on January 2007. The prosecution argued that Elicia had killed Brian because she had discovered his infidelities and wanted to collect on a $250,000 life insurance policy. The prosecution’s evidence that she killed Brian was circumstantial.
Crime scene investigators testifying for the prosecution said some expended bullet casings were found outside the house and some were found near the door—not where they would be expected to be if the shooting took place inside the home. This prompted the prosecution to argue that Elicia tossed the casings around to support her claim of an intruder. The investigators also testified that there was no blood in the foyer of the home, as might be expected when someone is shot four times with a .45-caliber pistol. The only blood was found pooled under Brian’s body, suggesting, the prosecution argued, that Brian was shot in the den, not in the foyer after answering the door.
A ballistics analyst testified that gunshot residue was found on the back of Elicia’s right hand. Prosecutors argued that this suggested Elicia had fired a weapon because touching Brian’s body would have left residue on her fingers instead of the back of her hand. Brian’s brother testified that Brian was security-conscious and that he would not have opened the door that late at night. The prosecution argued that Hughes’ claim of hearing the gunshots before the alarm sounded suggested that Elicia shot Brian, then opened the door to set off the alarm to make it appear that there had been an intruder.
One of Brian’s girlfriends testified that she was speaking to Brian on his cell phone at 11:10 p.m.—just before the shooting. She said she heard him drive into his garage, set the car alarm, walk into the house, set the home alarm and put carryout food on a table. She said he then said he would have to call her back—which she claimed was a code meaning that Elicia had come into the room. Ten minutes later, the home alarm sounded and Brian was dead—shot in the chest, groin, arm and leg.
Police testified that they found a bullet lodged in a wall, indicating that the shooter was inexperienced with a gun and had fired wildly. On January 9, 2007, a jury convicted Hughes and she was sentenced to life in prison. A month later, however, the trial judge set aside the conviction, ruling that the prosecution had engaged in discriminatory jury selection to dismiss black prospective jurors. Hughes was released on bond pending a new trial.
Hughes went on trial a second time in November 2007. The prosecution presented the same evidence as in the first trial—although the girlfriend now embellished her testimony about the cell phone conversation with Brian. For the first time, she testified that after he said he had to call her back—their code—she asked him if Elicia was there with him and he said she was. The defense cross-examined her about her change in her account and suggested she had changed her statement to attempt to more fully incriminate Elicia.
Elicia’s new defense lawyer, Dennis Sweet III, discovered that police had photographed tire skid marks outside the home at the time of the murder, but no witness had been found who heard a car leave the home. Sweet located a neighbor who testified that she was on the telephone when she heard the gunshots and almost immediately heard—though she did not see—a car screech away from the Hughes home.
The defense called a ballistics expert who testified that the gunshot residue on Elicia’s hand easily could have easily been the result of coming in contact with her husband’s body after she found him on the floor. And in cross-examining crime scene personnel, the defense exposed that the bullet cartridges had been moved at least once to allow for the removal of Brian’s body.
On November 16, 2007, the jury acquitted Elicia after two hours of deliberation.
– Maurice Possley
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.