A family’s tragedy leads to call for more transparent laws

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Carrie Bouchard said she lives minutes away from the woman convicted of killing her father.

"It's a little scary because I do believe this person is dangerous," Bouchard said.

Bouchard said she will not mention the woman's name but said she took part in the 1996 murder of her father, Sammy Garner.

"It turned out to be people he knew and trusted," Bouchard said. 

Seven on Your Side did a previous story with this family 2012.

Bouchard's mother and Sammy's ex-wife Chrystal Garner told WDAM he was stabbed to death in his home in Petal.

"He was stabbed in the back with a 12-inch butcher knife while he lay sleeping in his bed," Chrystal Garner said.
A man, along with the woman, was convicted in Sammy Garner's murder.

"(They) robbed him of what money he had in the house, stole his car (and) went straight to New Orleans and traded it in a drug deal," Bouchard said.

The man involved was sentenced to life in prison and the woman was sentence to 20 years for manslaughter and 10 years for burglary.  The family said she served half her sentence behind bars and was released in 2012 on a program called Earned Release Supervision.

"It was such a shock that I felt like there were too many people who believe this law works one way to find out later that it works another," Bouchard said.

Only after the woman's release, Chrystal Garner said they found out about Earned Release Supervision and its programs offered to eligible inmates to reduce their time in prison.

According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, ERS is:

"when an inmate is sentenced to serve time, an Earned Release Supervision (ERS) date, a tentative release date and a maximum release date are configured.  The earned release supervision date is based on an inmate serving a percentage of their sentence, which correlates with applicable laws.  For example, an inmate may be required to serve 85% of a sentence in a facility and is eligible to serve the remaining 15% on ERS, if the crime was committed on or after July 1, 1995."

MDOC also mentions that there are many factors that are considered in calculating an inmate's ERS date. For instance, an inmate's behavior while incarcerated is a key issue that is reviewed by the classification committee.

The family said they have to cope with another confusing outcome of the law.

In October, Bouchard emailed Seven on Your Side and said she had been informed by Forrest County officials that the woman was back in custody for other offenses, but would be released that same month.

The family wants to know: Why the woman is not now considered a habitual offender and sentenced to more time in prison?

"Habitual offenses are separate and distinct offenses that you commit," Mississippi State Sen. Joey Fillingane said.

He said the separate offense has to be another felony and not a misdemeanor. According to the Forrest County D.A.'s office, those other offenses referenced in Bouchard's email were all misdemeanors.

Fillingane said the outcries from other victims of violent crimes are the reason lawmakers changed the terms under manslaughter in 2014.

"Prior to 2014 for manslaughter you could pretty much half your sentence by simply working every day that you are incarcerated, and for every day you work you get a day off from your sentence," Fillingane said. "But after 2014 you can't do that. The most you can hope to get is the 15 percent off of your time for good behavior."

Filligane said the MDOC system is complicated and confusing for the public. But he offers a solution.

"I think maybe a transparency effort of some sort, so that before people agree to a plea deal maybe the judge instruct them from the bench, or something like that, as to what they plea deal will actually mean as far as time served and what is the earliest date possible for their release," he said.

The family said they will never have their loved one back. Now they can only fight for clarity for themselves and those that may one day be in their shoes.

"If we make the public aware, and if eventually some law makers make changes then I can say something positive came from this," Chrystal Garner said.