Jay Lee case: Sparse affidavit offers few new details

Jimmie “Jay” Lee, a 20-year-old University of Mississippi student, has been missing since Friday, July 8. Credits: Courtesy Oxford Police Department

Oxford police presented little on-the-record evidence other than the word of a detective to obtain a warrant to arrest Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a recent Ole Miss graduate, for the first-degree murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee, according to an affidavit obtained by Mississippi Today.

The sparse evidence in the affidavit – one of the few documents publicly available at this stage of the case – is not unusual in Mississippi, legal experts and defense attorneys say.

Since Herrington’s arrest Friday, the Oxford Police Department has not released any new details regarding probable cause or a potential motive in the case, leaving members of the public to search for answers. Police have stated in press releases that they believe Lee, a Black student who was well-known in Oxford’s LGBTQ community, was visiting someone at Molly Barr Trails, a student housing complex, on the day he was killed.

It’s unclear who Lee was visiting, and police have yet to find his body.

The Lafayette County District Attorney’s Office did not return calls on Tuesday. Kevin Horan, Herrington’s attorney and a state representative, was not available for comment. Carlos Moore, Herrington’s uncle by marriage who is also retained in the case, told WREG Herrington is innocent.

The affidavit, obtained by Mississippi Today, shows OPD detective Ryan Baker swore an oath in Lafayette County Justice Court that Herrington “did feloniously, willfully and unlawfully with deliberate design to effect the death of Jimmie Dale Lee III” on July 8. The affidavit does not describe the evidence that led Baker to this conclusion.

Baker took that oath on Friday, July 22, and Judge Mickey Avent issued the warrant that led to Herrington’s arrest that day. Police announced the arrest at 6:51 pm, and Herrington was booked at the Lafayette County Detention Center at 8:13 pm He was held without bond over the weekend.

In Mississippi, affidavits contain law enforcement’s conclusion, or theory, of the case, said Matt Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College who helped write the state criminal procedures. The documents typically do not present an explanation of the underlying facts in the case.

“It’d be nice, wouldn’t it, for all those things to be on the record,” Steffey said. “That has not been the arc of development of criminal procedure in our state today.”

Steffey called the level of detail in the affidavit in Herrington’s case “very thin” but “not dramatically out of line with other affidavits I’ve seen.”

Judges can deny warrants if they believe police need to present more evidence. In fact, the state’s criminal procedures encourage judges to probe the police’s theory of the case. State code says that judges “should not accept without question the … their conclusion that the person whose arrest is sought has committed a crime.”

Steffey said that Baker may have provided Avent with more evidence in verbal testimony – but the public may not know, because justice court proceedings are not transcribed in Mississippi.

The evidence that police had to obtain the warrant to arrest Herrington could factor into his bond hearing tomorrow if his attorney requests a preliminary hearing, local defense attorneys say.

Herrington is charged with first-degree murder, also known as simple or plain murder in Mississippi. The state Constitution gives judges discretion to revoke or impose bond, but first-degree murder is typically a “bailable” offense.

The prosecution is arguing that Herrington should be denied bond. In a motion submitted on Friday, Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Kilpatrick wrote that Herrington should be held without bond because he is a threat to the community and a “profound” flight risk.

Kilpatrick also argued that Herrington should be held because he could be charged with capital murder, which is typically not a bailable offense in Mississippi.

“Specifically, the Defendant at this time is charged with what is commonly known as ‘simple murder’ at this point in time based on the evidence available as of writing this Motion,” Kilpatrick wrote. “Clearly the Defendant will be facing Capital Murder charges if evidence of such is discovered. As of now, Jay Lee’s body has not been recovered.”

David Hill, a defense attorney in Oxford, said that prosecutors would have a greater chance of preventing Herrington from receiving bail if they’d first charged him with capital murder, not first-degree.

“If they anticipate he’s facing capital murder charges, they should charge him with capital murder,” Hill said, “because if the proof is evident and the presumption is great, he can’t get bail.”

Lee’s disappearance and Herrington’s arrest has hit national headlines, fueling speculation in Oxford and across the country. On social media, some users have searched through Lee’s accounts for clues, trying to piece together a narrative in the absence of more information from the police.

Steffey, the law professor, said local police may be withholding information from the public to help the prosecution’s case.

“Public transparency is a secondary value at this point to an effective prosecution,” Steffey said. “They may have a reason for not giving out more information – they may worry it’s going to risk destruction of evidence, or loss of witnesses, or who knows. Or there could be no reason.”

Since Lee’s disappearance is such a high-profile case, Steffey said the public might expect more transparency from law enforcement than the standard case. He has pushed for more sunshine in Mississippi’s justice system as a contributor to the state’s criminal procedures.

“I argued for more transcripts records and transparency at every stage and was often met with, ‘That’s not the way we do things, that won’t work outside big cities,’” he said. “The law is a change resistant profession.”

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