Johnson, Jim

Jim Johnson

TUPELO • Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson on Tuesday walked back statements he made Monday that suggested criminal justice reforms put a violent offender accused of stabbing a man to death back on the street.

“Criminal justice reform per se doesn’t apply in this case,” Johnson said Tuesday.

The sheriff’s initial comments were made during a press conference pertaining to the arrest of Maurice Agnew, 54, of 567 Clark Lane, Baldwyn. Agnew was arrested and charged with manslaughter in the Sunday afternoon stabbing death of Thelbert Randall Cowley, 56, of Saltillo.

In March 2018, Agnew assaulted a man and was arrested shortly thereafter. He spent 29 months in the county jail awaiting trial.

During a one-day bench trial in August 2020, Circuit Judge John White found Agnew guilty and sentenced him to 20 years. Agnew was given credit for the time he had already served, and the remainder of the sentence was suspended. The judge also ordered Agnew to serve five years of post-release supervision, commonly called probation.

While talking with the media during a Monday press conference at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson expressed his frustration of working to arrest and secure a conviction only to have violent offenders released back into the public.

“We’re talking about an aggravated assault where a man’s throat was cut, and (Agnew) only spent a little more than 2 years of a 20-year sentence in jail,” Johnson told reporters. “If that’s what the general public wants, then continue to support criminal justice reform, and that’s what we’re going to have in our community.”

But Johnson said Tuesday that the Agnew case would not have been affected by reform efforts. It was a case of a judge sentencing Agnew to time served.

“I was just trying to say that even without criminal justice reform, the system already allows violent offenders to get out,” Johnson said. “We might need to fix what is already broken instead of weakening the system even more (with reforms).”

Johnson also made a misleading statement in a press release issued Monday. In it, he detailed Agnew’s 2018 crime, in which he was charged for cutting a man’s throat, before writing that “Agnew spent 2 years and 5 months of that sentence in the Lee County Jail before the remainder of his 20-year sentence was suspended and he was released.”

But this statement suggests Agnew served his felony sentence in the county jail instead of state prison. Agnew had not been convicted or sentenced during the bulk of the time he spent in the county jail.

When pressed Tuesday, Johnson said the statement was accurate, but his choice of wording might be confusing.

“He didn’t get sentenced and then stay two years in the county jail,” Johnson said. “He was arrested right after the incident and never got out.”

During Monday’s press conference, Johnson also expounded upon his frustrations with the criminal justice system.

“We believe in giving people second chances, but when it comes to violent offenders that are let out here on our streets because of some law that says you can have 14 different chances and have everything in the world you ever done expunged and there is no record,” he said. “That is a very dangerous precedent we have set, and I can’t support it, and I don’t.”

But state law currently does not allow for violent crimes to be expunged or officially erased from someone’s record, although a bill presented in the Mississippi Legislature this session would allow for the expungement of some violent crimes.

Johnson also mentioned reforms to remove habitual criminal status and sentence reductions as problems with reform efforts.

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