Ordered to serve 18 years, avoids retrial, death penalty
A case that has gone on three times as long as the little victim’s life has come to a close.
Justin Blakeney, 35, admitted to killing his girlfriend’s toddler Victoria Viner and he was ordered to serve 18 years in prison after pleading guilty in Jones County Circuit Court to a reduced charge of manslaughter. Blakeney was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death five years ago, but the state Supreme Court reversed the decision and ordered it for retrial. The second trial was set to start on Sept. 9 in Neshoba County.
Blakeney has been behind bars for more than eight years for the death of little Victoria, who died of “blunt force trauma” to her head while she was in Blakeney’s care in August of 2010. She was 2 years, 10 months old at the time.
“A plea (agreement) is a compromise. No one is happy with it,” District Attorney Tony Buckley said. “I take full responsibility for the decision.”
Several factors led Buckley to make the offer to Blakeney and attorneys Bill LaBarre of the Jackson-based Office of Capital Defense and public defender John Piazza, and he explained them in detail. But still, it was difficult, he said.
“I anguished over this,” Buckley said. “I have a picture of (Victoria) in my office.”
There were also conflicting opinions between medical experts — one said Victoria would have been unconscious within minutes after the injury but another said it could have happened up to 24 hours earlier. The little girl’s mother, Lydia Viner, had been with her up to about an hour before Blakeney called 911 and reported that little Victoria had fallen.
Lydia Viner, who was in the country illegally, was deported back to Mexico and can’t return to the United States, so she would not be back to testify.
“There are no eyewitnesses, no confession and Lydia is not allowed back in the country,” Buckley said of some of the major obstacles in proving his case.
“Our direct evidence is no longer there,” he said. “It becomes a circumstantial case, and the burden of proof becomes much higher than ‘beyond a reasonable a doubt.’”
Judge Dal Williamson, who did not preside over the first case, asked Blakeney if he killed Victoria Viner. Blakeney said, “Yes.”
That also played a part in Buckley’s decision to go with the plea agreement.
“It was important to get the admission that he did it,” he said.
LaBarre was prepared to file a motion to bar the retrial, and it contained some scathing accusations against former Assistant District Attorney J. Ronald Parrish, the prosecutor who got the conviction and death penalty in the first case. The state Supreme Court said that evidence Parrish and the Jones County Sheriff’s Department gathered against Blakeney while he was in the county jail had to be excluded. That included a letter in which he confessed to killing the “mixed-breed” girl and used that to try to gain admission to the powerful white prison gang the Aryan Brotherhood.
That motion laid the groundwork for LaBarre to appeal a conviction if the Neshoba jury would have found Blakeney guilty.
“It could have gone on 14-19 years from now,” Buckley said.
Williamson also acknowledged that the case would be more difficult for the state to prove since evidence had been deemed inadmissible, and if there was a conviction, the appeals would “go on and on and on.”
He also noted that there was no parent or other family member in court to “speak for this child.”
Williamson said he read the state Supreme Court’s decision and the case file and determined that Parrish was “emotionally involved” in the case, “zealous in his pursuit of justice and a sense of duty to the child … as a good prosecutor should be.”
Costs were not a factor in Buckley’s decision, but when asked to estimate the expense of a trial in Neshoba County, with out-of-state witnesses, airline tickets and hotel stays for them and his staff, he said, “$20,000 minimum.” With a conviction, there would be an appeal, which could mean another trial. And if there were an acquittal, that would mean a possible lawsuit against the county for wrongful incarceration of almost nine years.
“At some point, this case needs closure,” Buckley said.
Williamson agreed, saying, “It’s time for this case to be resolved.”
LaBarre talked about the toll the case and prison has taken on his client.
“He looked like a boy when this all started,” he said. “The system has aged him drastically. He’s just ready to move on. There’s not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of Victoria. The hardest cases are the ones that involve a dead child.”
Parrish was also in court, prepared to testify in the motion trial if no plea agreement had been reached. He “respectfully disagreed” with the plea, Buckley said.
Buckley did put it on record that his former ADA did not withhold possible exculpatory evidence from the defense, as LaBarre put in his motion.
Blakeney could be eligible for parole in as little as a year or it could be as long as 4-1/2 years, Buckley said.
He was sentenced to death in July 2014 after a Greene County jury found him guilty of killing Victoria. Buckley withdrew the death penalty earlier this year.
The state Supreme Court reversed Blakeney’s conviction and remanded the case back to the circuit court. The most significant error in the prosecution, according to the decision, was the use of evidence — including a confession — that was obtained through the state’s use of “jailhouse snitches.”
Two members of the Aryan Brotherhood testified and had evidence that Blakeney admitted to killing the half-Mexican toddler and used that as a means to become a member of the all-white prison gang.
Blakeney was sentenced to death by the jury and had been serving his time on Death Row in Parchman, but he has been in segregated, protective custody in the Jones County Adult Detention Center awaiting trial since late last year.
Parrish took issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling. He said the snitches approached the DA’s office saying they had information about the case.
“I told them that they were criminals, so their word wasn’t good enough … they had to bring me proof,” Parrish said.
But by doing that, they became “state agents,” according to the high court. Parrish argued that is common practice in criminal investigations. He also pointed out that Blakeney was charged and indicted on medical evidence alone.