I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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Country guitarist Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith has died

Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith has died at 93. Probably his most important recording (as opposed to his most famous) was “Guitar Boogie,” which was close to the first country record with guitars playing straight-up boogie woogie parts.  There’s a nice obituary on the Charlotte Observer site.

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He said it was not anything he learned from listening to country music– he said that got the idea listening to big band jazz like Tommy Dorsey.

The influence of “Guitar Boogie” is illustrated in later covers by the likes of Chet Atkins and Les Paul.  There was a wave of country hits mining the intersection of honky tonk and boogie at the hands of folks like Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Here’s Les Paul’s take on “Guitar Boogie.”

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While guitar boogie is probably his most influential recording, it’s not his most famous.  He wrote and recorded a song called “Feuding Banjos” that Eric Weisberg  re-recorded as “Dueling Banjos.”  After it became famous in the movie Deliverance, Smith had to sue to vindicate his rights.

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He also may have had the first live syndicated country music show.  Here’s a really nice 14 minute video about him with both interview and brief snippets of his live playing.  Well worth watching.  The bits of music are almost torturing– you get snippets of him playing with Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, and others, but leaving you wanting more.

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H/t to Mary Katherine Aldin for the news.

Gov. Bryant signs bill protecting peyote eaters and rejecting Scalia opinion to the contrary

In 1990, the United States Supreme Court decided Employment Division v. Smith.  In that case, individuals were denied unemployment benefits because they were fired for eating peyote.  In an opinion by conservative justice Antonin Scalia, the United States Supreme Court held: Of course you can deny unemployment benefits to people fired for eating peyote.

While it took a while for this outrage to sink in, after twenty-something years, our representatives in the Mississippi Legislature, and our peyote-advocating Governor Phil Bryant decided that it is at last time to end this oppressive treatment of our peyote-eating fellow citizens.

On the one hand, I wish this post had occurred to me on April 1st.  On the other hand, given that the actual truth in what I just wrote, it’s probably best to have inadvertently saved it for another day.

Here’s my sources for the above.  Here’s the holding of Employment Division v. Smith, from the Court’s syllabus (yes, I know it’s just the syllabus and not authority and blah blah.  This is a blog, people): “The Free Exercise Clause permits the State to prohibit sacramental peyote use, and thus to deny unemployment benefits to persons discharged for such use.”

This is from the “statement of purpose” in section one of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” as signed by the Governor:

(c)  Government should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification;

(d)  In Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the United States Supreme Court virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion;

See?  This statute is about overturning the result in Smith holding that peyote eaters are not protected by the First Amendment.

I will have more to say about this in a more serious vein later.

Bobby Rush, Vashti Jackson, and Jesse Robinson play the Lamar Lounge in Oxford

Bobby Rush Vashti Jackson playToday was an over-the-top Oxford day– the Southern Culture Center’s Music Conference, Thacker Mountain, a reception for the blues show at the University Museum, a Mississippi all-star blues concert at the Lamar Lounge.   We took in a lot of it, but the highlight was the blues show at the Lamar.

This was one of those nights that totally establishes that blues is still active and alive here.  There were memorable sets from Bud Welch, Vashti Jackson, Kenny Brown, and Terry Bean.  But the most memorable by far were from Jesse Robinson, pretty easily the best blues guitarist in Mississippi, and Bobby Rush with Vashti Jackson.  All short sets, and very memorable.

If you get any chance to see these folk, particularly Jesse Robinson and Bobby Rush (who says he’s now 80?), see them.

Jimbo Mathis backed the whole show on drums, and kept it tight.  He and his bass player (whose name I did not get) really tastefully and excellently matched the style of each player who came along.

Trent Wood, host of Looney Zoo, has died

Anyone who grew up in the Memphis area in the late 50s and 60s surely remembers Looney Tunes and its host, Trent Wood, who was a Memphis TV celebrity (second only to Sivad to my mind and perhaps Happy Hal) in from 1952 until Looney Zoo ended in the early 70s.

I’ve learned from Vance Lauderdale (on Facebook), who writes about Memphis history for Memphis Magazine, that Wood has just died. He was living in Oklahoma. After Looney Zooended its run, he went to the bond department of First Tennessee bank and then later to Oklahoma.

Here’s more from an earlier piece by Lauderdale about Wood.

The other surprising fact I’ve learned is that Tiny the Clown, Wood’s sidekick, was a theater professor at Southwestern.

Michelle Byrom: The Attorney General pleads, “Tell me why!”

The Attorney General responded to Tuesday’s order reversing Michelle Byrom’s conviction by noting that it is unprecedented since the re-imposition for the death penalty for a defendant to be allowed to win so resoundingly and so Court must explain itself.

Or something like that.

The motion makes a statement it ends with a question mark:  ”The State submits there is an absolute need to know the reasoning behind this decision so as to avoid the same errors at the new trial?”  After noting that, they quote M.R.A.P. 35 (the court should write an opinion if it would “be useful to the parties or to the trial court.”), and then state “a written opinion will be useful to the parties and to the trial court assigned to retry this case.”  The motion argues it would be useful to help avoid making the same mistakes again.

Since a reading of the petition makes clear that the only possible reason for reversal was that the court and possibly the prosecutor were aware that there was a confession that would have been exculpatory to Michelle Byrom; not providing it to her violated her right to be told exculpatory evidence.  How, exactly, an explanation of that would help avoid repeat error– is the Attorney General suggesting there is more evidence not yet disclosed?– is less than clear to me.

I will say that the Attorney General insists that the confession issue was fully litigated, although an honest reading of the prior pleadings suggests that “fully litigated” meant that Byrom’s lawyers were denied access to the evidence they sort of knew was out there, and then were told they hadn’t made their proof, among other failings.

The notion that “hard cases make bad law” in criminal cases in general and in death penalty cases very specifically invariably means one thing:  ”We are going to affirm this conviction no matter what because the facts are so bad, so, where we can’t fudge about the issues, we’re just going to improvise some really bad rules.”  I’ve always wondered whether there would come a point where the court would look at their increasingly strict procedural rules used to prevent claims from being heard, and, in the right case say, “Look, I know what the rules say, but if we do this one that way, I’m not sure we can sleep at night.”  Maybe that’s the underlying principle that got nine votes.  If so, I don’t think the Attorney General should hold their breath in hopes of an explanation.

Here’s State’s Motion.

A Black Student at Ole Miss ponders the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s Old South Ball

In today’s Daily Mississippian, the opinion editor, Tim Abram, meditates on why it would be that his college classmates who are in the Kappa Alpha fraternity might think it’s a good idea to travel to St. Joseph Plantation, where parts of 12 Years a Slave were filmed, to have themselves an Old South Ball, celebrating the “values” of the Old South.

He notes that it is probably not the heritage of most of them because of how few Southerners were slaveowners.  He describes his attempt to understand why his classmates would do this:

I always find great value in understanding the unknown. It is unknown to me why some of my classmates wish to travel to a plantation (where scenes from “12 Years a Slave” were filmed) and dress in formal antebellum attire.

It is all worth reading, and a pretty remarkable piece of student journalism.

Has that fraternity quit doing the event where they dress up in psuedo-Confederate military garb and ride on horses to the courthouse and stand by the confederate monument and have someone read the Articles of Secession?  The first time I actually saw it (one Saturday in the 1980s), I was floored.  They had a flatbed truck ride along in the parade with their dates wearing hoop-skirts.

Maybe they have gone a little more underground since.   It does raise questions in my mind about how good those folks are at evaluating what might offend others (something their internal rules have cautioned against since 1951).

h/t to my mom for pointing me to the editorial.

Madonna records bluegrass album for Cracker Barrel

Mandolin Cafe has the most interesting report of the day:

Lebanon, Tenn. — Cracker Barrel and pop legend Madonna have announced collaboration on a new project entitled Bluegrass Material Girl, a collection of traditional acoustic string band music featuring her vocals in the style of Bill Monroe.

Backed by some of the finest bluegrass musicians on the scene, the new recording appears to be a move to re-invent herself, something Madonna has succeeded at many times over her career.

Thanks to Amy Evans for the heads-up.

An amazing amount of blues at Lamar Lounge on Thursday April 3

This is quite a list of folks who will apparently be at Lamar on Thursday in the poster below.

There is a ridiculous amount going on this week in Oxford.


Michelle Byrom: The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered a new trial.

Update below

The Mississippi Supreme Court entered an order today that Michelle Byrom is to receive a new trial. They have also ordered that the trial be before a new judge, in an en banc order signed by Justice Coleman with no dissents.

This is extraordinary and unprecedented to my knowledge. The order says that considering the petition– which I am told raised innocence issues– “the petition is well taken and should be granted.” The entire conviction– not just the sentence– is vacated for a retrial.

This is after the case has been tried, on direct appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, on certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, on post conviction to the Mississippi Supreme Court, certiorari again, and then the federal district court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Next time someone says that a death sentence is fine because of all the judges who looked at it, remember Michelle Byrom.

The order notes that it is not only unprecedented, it won’t be precedent:

The relief afforded herein is extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition to pursue post conviction relief, and we limit the relief we today grant to the facts of the above styled case.

This is an amazing result. Major congratulations to David Calder and other members of her current team for an extraordinary win.

Here’s the Order.


I’ve given a quick skim to Byrom’s “successor” petition (her second attempt at post-conviction relief). Here’s what happened, according to the petition:

The trial judge appointed Dr. Lott to do competency exams for Michelle, her son “Junior”, and a guy named Gillis. The prosecution theory was that, at Michelle’s behest, Junior hired Gillis to do the killing.

While Dr. Lott was interviewing Junior, he confessed. Dr. Lott did not put that in his report (which was given to the trial court and Junior’s counsel) but he did telephone the trial judge and tell him about the confession and ask what to do. The judge told Dr. Lott to keep it confidential.

Michelle was tried in November of 2000. Gillis plead guilty to being an accessory after the fact in March of 2001. Somewhere along the line, possibly after the trial, Lott disclosed Junior’s confession to Gillis’s lawyers, who used it to get an extraordinary deal for Gillis. It is not clear whether the prosecution knew about Junior’s confession pretrial, but is clear the court did.

It is the failure to disclose this confession at trial that has to be the central reason this petition was granted. It’s a little odd though– Michelle’s trial lawyers learned about it several months after the trial through hearsay (from Gillis’s lawyers) and a newspaper report of a statement by an assistant district attorney. So it was sort-of-known. However, Lott refused to cooperate with every attempt to obtain an affidavit of or evidence about the statement, and Michelle’s postconviction lawyers never got allowed discovery. What was not known that may have tipped the balance is that Lott had told the trial judge about the confession pre-trial.

Here is the Motion for Leave. I will post the exhibits, responses, and replies if there is interest.


Rumsfeld denies Bush administration had a Justice Department

Charles Pierce pulls this quote from Errol Morris’s documentary about Rumsfeld:

ERROL MORRIS: What about all these so-called torture memos?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, there were what? One or two or three. I don’t know the number, but there were not all of these so-called memos. They were mischaracterized as torture memos, and they came not out of the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice, blessed by the attorney general, the senior legal official of the United States of America, having been nominated by a president and confirmed by the United States Senate overwhelmingly. Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did. I’ll chalk that one up.