JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentence given Kristi Leigh Fulgham for her role in the 2003 murder of her husband.
The Supreme Court on Thursday, in an unanimous decision, ordered a new sentencing hearing, ruling the trial judge erred in disallowing testimony of a social worker called during the sentencing phase of Fulgham’s trial.
The justices upheld Fulgham’s capital murder conviction in the shooting death of Joseph “Joey” Fulgham, at the couple’s Longview community home in Oktibbeha County. Fulgham, now 34, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court.
According to the court record, the trial judge agreed with prosecutors that the social worker was not qualified to draw conclusions from the report her compiled on Fulgham’s social history.
Supreme Court Justice Ann Lamar said the rules of evidence allow the social worker to testify to her opinions and observations after a court’s acceptance of her as an expert in the field of social work.
“A defendant is permitted to introduce virtually any relevant and reliable evidence touching upon the defendant’s background and character, or the crime itself, which is offered as a basis to persuade a jury to return a sentence of less than death,” Lamar said.
The Supreme Court, however, did not overturn Fulgham’s conviction, only the death sentence.
The Supreme Court’s action means a new sentencing hearing before a jury will have to be scheduled for Fulgham in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court. Judge Lee Howard presided over Fulgham’s trial; whether he will preside over the new sentencing hearing is unknown.
If a new jury sentences her to death, Fulgham will be the first woman from Oktibbeha County to receive such a penalty.
The claim about the prohibition of the social worker’s testimony was a key issue raised by Fulgham’s attorneys in appealing her conviction and death sentence.
Though 38 claims were made in Fulgham’s written appeal, the major claims included:
• Denial of a motion by defense counsel for a mistrial after a Bible was discovered to have been inadvertently left by a bailiff in the jury deliberation room during the sentencing phase of the trial.
• The trial court’s refusal to include numerous defense jury instructions.
• The trial court’s allowing of what defense attorney say was “prejudicial hearsay evidence.”
The selection of a jury from Union County was also asserted as grounds for a conviction reversal. Defense attorneys stipulate that a jury from a county outside the region’s media coverage of the crime should have been used.
Prosecutors said Joey Fulgham was shot once in the head while he slept in the home he and Kristi Fulgham were sharing in May 2003. They claim his wallet was missing and Kristi Fulgham wanted money.
Fulgham’s lawyers argued that Joey Fulgham had abused her and she suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome.