The background to the case
When he was 14, Brett Jones moved from Florida to Mississippi to escape his dysfunctional family life and a stepfather who allegedly emotionally and physically abused him from the time he was about 10.
Jones and his mother could not have foreseen then, in the summer of 2004, that he would end up in a far more sinister situation than the one he was fleeing, one that would forever change the course of his life and their family.
Now, 16 years later, Jones is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case that could affect the fate of hundreds of juvenile offenders across the country sentenced to die in prison.
In court hearings leading up to this case, Jones and his younger brother testified their stepfather, who married their mother in 1999, would grab them by the neck, choke them, and beat them with a belt buckle till the skin broke.
Their stepfather also used a Ping-Pong paddle to beat the boys and called them by derogatory terms like “little bastards” and “little motherf------,” Jones’ mother, Enette Wigginton, told the court.
“Me and my little brother, man, we were terrorized half the time just living there. You feel like walking through the living room when my stepdad was home was almost like dodging bullets,” said Jones, who like his mother, began cutting himself at an early age.
The animosity between him and his stepfather intensified after Jones said he missed a curfew, and his stepfather lashed out at him. He grabbed him by the throat, “pulled a belt” and threatened to “beat the s---” out of him.
This time, Jones fought back. He swung at his stepfather, “splitting” his ear, which bled “horribly,” Wigginton said. The police arrested Jones for domestic violence, and he was required to take an anger management class.
Shortly afterward, Jones went to live with his paternal grandparents in Shannon, Mississippi. Jones welcomed the move and said he was looking forward to starting high school, even though it meant changing schools again.
He had done plenty of that already. Wigginton said the family moved nine times in four or five years. “We moved around so much that the school lost all my records, and I had to repeat the seventh grade,” Jones said.
While in Mississippi, he enjoyed spending time with his cousins in a “normal” household, he said. “It was completely stress-free compared to what I was going through in Florida.”
But his newly found bliss came to a devastating end about two months later.
On Aug. 9, 2004, less than a month after Jones turned 15, his grandfather caught him in his bedroom watching television with his girlfriend, Michelle Austin, and ordered her out of the house. Austin had run away from her home in Florida and was secretly living with Jones as well as in a nearby abandoned fish restaurant.
Jones testified his grandfather Bertis confronted him later that day about the episode when he was in the kitchen making a sandwich. Jones said he “sassed” his grandfather, at which point the heated exchange escalated into a fight. He said Bertis pushed him, and he pushed back, then Bertis “swung at him.” Cornered, Jones said he threw the knife he had in his hand from making a sandwich, stabbing his grandfather. When Bertis continued to come at him, the record shows Jones grabbed a different knife and stabbed his grandfather eight times.
Jones said he tried to revive Bertis with CPR. When that failed, Jones tried to cover up the crime by dragging his grandfather’s body into the laundry room and using a hose to clean up the blood. He also “threw his shirt in the garbage under the sink,” and “attempted to cover up the blood spots in the carport by pulling his grandfather’s car over them.”
Jones said he called 911 and was waiting on an ambulance but panicked when the police arrived and left the scene in search of his grandmother.
At trial, Austin, who was charged as an accessory after the fact to murder, testified that Jones threatened to “hurt his granddaddy,” but under cross-examination, she acknowledged she was lying “to keep from going to the penitentiary.”
Jones told jurors he was afraid and stabbed his grandfather in self-defense. Unconvinced, they convicted him of murder. Under Mississippi’s parole statute, he was automatically sentenced to life without parole.