A Circuit Court jury was unable to decide Thursday whether 31-year-old Orlando Newell acted in self defense or intentionally killed the on-again-off-again boyfriend of his sister, Sharon Newell.
The jury voted 11-1 for a first-degree murder conviction after three hours of deliberation. District Attorney Joel Smith said Newell will be retried Nov. 5.
Nobody disputed that Newell killed 41-year-old Michael Woods, a man who acted as a father to Sharon Newell's three children. Woods lay dead near dawn on Sept. 24, 2016, in the parking lot of Southern View Apartments just off U.S. 90 in Biloxi.
Prosecutors said Newell was enraged because his sister had kicked him out of her apartment. He had been sleeping on her couch for several months because he was without a job while she worked two jobs.
Defense attorney Charlie Stewart insisted Orlando Newell feared for his life because Woods came at him with a knife after a rowdy argument between Newell and his sister.
Earlier in the evening, testimony showed, he beat his sister with a belt because she did not side with him in a family argument.
She threw his clothes and other possessions from her second-floor apartment balcony into the parking lot below, telling him not to return, she testified. While they were fighting, she said, she threw kitchen knives at him.
"He said, 'I'm going to kill you, b - - - -,' " she told the jury. "He said that like 100 times." Those were his last words to her before he left, returning several hours later to find Woods, who had checked on the family, coming down the apartment stairs.
Assistant District Attorney Ian Baker said that Woods was holding his car keys in one hand and his cellphone in the other — not a knife.
No knife was found near the body, but Stewart let the jury know someone at the crowded crime scene could have moved one of the knives before police arrived. Four knives, all found some distance from the body, were not swabbed for DNA, he said.
Police arrested Newell at a nearby apartment about 30 minutes after Woods died. Investigators found the weapon that killed Woods, a 9-mm semi-automatic pistol, in an outdoor trash can at the apartments. Newell had gunshot residue on his hands.
Prosecutors argued that Newell planned to kill his sister, aiming for a first-degree murder conviction. Woods, Baker said, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Short of acquittal, Stewart would have preferred a conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
First-degree murder in Mississippi does not require a finding of premeditation but instead relies on a deliberate design to kill that can be formed in "an instant," Circuit Court Judge Lisa Dodson instructed the jury before deliberations. If they found Newell not guilty of first degree murder, she said, they should consider manslaughter, a killing in "the heat of passion."
A third option was acquittal if the evidence showed Newell acted in self defense.
During closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Beth McFadyen had the final word. She told the jury, "It's not self defense when you go to somebody's house with a gun. It's not self defense when you shoot a man in the back. It's not self defense when you shoot him five times."