Attorney says Mike Byrd has a right to voice his opinion in sheriff's race

mbbaker@sunherald.comJuly 14, 2014 

JACKSON COUNTY -- The attorney for former Sheriff Mike Byrd has advised him to stay out of the political process in Jackson County, though he said Byrd has a right to voice his opinion in the upcoming sheriff's election because of his first amendment rights.

"My advice to Mike is to just simply not get involved in any aspect of Sheriff (Charles) Britt's political endeavors," Attorney Joe Sam Owen said Monday. "I don't know what transpired, but it just appears to me that it's a situation that Sheriff Britt could probably handle without any problems, and I don't know why he'd be concerned about Mike Byrd."

Britt is questioning whether Byrd, now a twice-convicted felon, violated the conditions of his probation when he called Sheriff's Office employees about who they were supporting in the upcoming sheriff's race. Britt outlined the concerns in a July 9 letter to Christopher Epps, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Britt said Byrd contacted one of his employees on April 10.

"The conversation between Byrd and my employee was not a pleasant one for my employee," Britt said. "In fact, it was disturbing to the officer. Byrd's purpose in calling my employee was to attempt to persuade that employee to support and endorse a candidate in an upcoming campaign which is scheduled to take place on the Coast."

When the employee refused, Britt said, "Byrd became abusive in his tone and language. In fact, his comments, language and threats verged on criminal misconduct and possibly a parole violation."

Byrd is currently on probation on a state charge of intimidating

a witness and a federal charge of witness tampering.

Sheriff's candidate Mike Ezell confirmed Monday that Byrd, a distant relative, had contacted a sheriff's deputy to try and get him to endorse Ezell. He said Britt informed him of Byrd's call to the deputy several months ago.

"I don't condone any of this," Ezell said. "I have over 30 years of law enforcement experience. I've got a positive record, and I've got a good reputation. The people of Jackson County are tired of these kinds of things, and they want the best for the county and that's what I stand for. It's time to move on. Mike Byrd is no longer sheriff."

Ezell is one of seven candidates, including Britt, in the November special election to fill Byrd's unexpired term.

When Byrd entered the pleas, he agreed to follow all probation requirements, such as not leaving the state without permission or owning or carrying a gun and not using alcohol or a controlled substance.

In a statement Monday, Britt said the letter was sent to Epps to inform him of the incident.

"This was a professional letter sent from one director to another asking him to investigate," Britt said. "It is my intention to let this process take place.

"This type of behavior is detrimental to the Sheriff's Office and the health and well-being of our employees. It cannot be tolerated."

Britt said he informed Byrd's probation officer after he made the call to the deputy, but since then, the calls have continued. He said the probation officer agreed to make a "site visit" to Byrd.

Despite that, Britt said, "I was recently informed this type of conduct continues. Byrd has not only been attempting to contact and coerce employees within my agency, but he has also had similar contact with local business professionals."

Owen said if Byrd saw a business professional or they called him for his opinion, he has a right to express that opinion.

"It appears to me that this is just another issue of somehow figuring you can garner votes by resurrecting the Byrd case," Owen said. "My advice to Mike Byrd is to stay clear of the political process."

According to MDOC spokesperson, Grace Fisher, her agency received the letter Thursday.

"We are looking into what the sheriff said, and will take appropriate action," Fisher said.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence and the Jackson County Board of Supervisors also received a copy of Britt's letter.

On Monday, Lawrence sent Britt a letter, reiterating that MDOC is charged with determining whether Byrd violated the conditions of his home confinement.

In addition, Lawrence said, the information Britt provided "did not indicate sufficient details of the alleged wrongdoing to determine if a new crime was committed."

If probable cause of new crime exists, Lawrence said, "I ask that you refer this matter to the proper law enforcement agency for further investigation."

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