Lafayette County Courthouse in Oxford as seen from the west side of the square. Credit: Mississippi Today

A special grand jury hearing was held at the Lafayette County Courthouse Monday for Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., the Ole Miss graduate charged with murdering Jimmie “Jay” Lee, Mississippi Today has confirmed. 

Lee was a queer, Black student at the University of Mississippi known for performing at a local drag night. His death has shocked Oxford’s tight-knit LGBTQ+ community and sparked a movement called “Justice for Jay Lee” which wants Herrington convicted.

The grand jury hearing comes about three months after Herrington was released from jail on a $250,000 bond. He was charged with Lee’s murder in July 2022.

In Mississippi, grand jury hearings are secret. It is unclear when the grand jury will return a decision, but it could be as soon as Tuesday. A text and call to Steven Jubera, the Lafayette County Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, was not returned. 

This hearing, the final step in a criminal investigation, marks a critical juncture in Herrington’s case. The grand jury could either vote to indict Herrington, meaning the case could proceed to trial, or return what is called a “no true bill” if there is not enough information to indict. 

This became public on Sunday morning when Justice for Jay Lee posted on Instagram that Herrington “will be appearing in court for indictment” this week. Braylyn Johnson, a friend of Lee’s and one of the group’s main organizers, said Justice for Jay Lee learned the grand jury would be meeting through a “whistleblower.” 

The post called for people to protest at the courthouse to show Herrington that Lee and his family have support in Oxford. 

“We need ALL of our supporters to make it here to rally with us for JUSTICE!,” the post read. 

That night, the Justice for Jay Lee page received a direct message from the Oxford Police Department’s Instagram page. 

“We appreciate your steadfast promotion for Jay Lee,” the message read. “But please hear us out. This is a special grand jury session just for this case due to the amount of evidence. Herrington WILL NOT be at the court house (sic). Disturbances could cause us not to be able to present to the grand jury. It could also lead to a request for a change of venue and we do not want that.” 

“We have worked hard on this case and do not want to do anything to jeopardize it,” the message concluded. 

OPD Captain Hildon Sessums, who sent the message, told Mississippi Today he was intending to warn Justice for Jay Lee that protesting could jeopardize the case. Sessums said he also wanted people to know that Herrington would not be at the courthouse. 

“We’re never going to try to stymie anybody’s First Amendment right,” Sessums said. “We just want people to realize that some actions have consequences, and the last thing we want to do is to do anything to jeopardize this case. We try to run everything by the book.” 

Sessums added that OPD isn’t trying to be secretive. Justice for Jay Lee has repeatedly called on the department to release more information about the case — specifically more details on the possible whereabouts of Lee’s body, which still has not been found more than 260 days after he went missing. 

“I just don’t think they understand all the logistics and what we’re doing and maybe that’s on us for not being as transparent as they would like us to be,” he said. “But again, this case has a lot of moving parts and we’re doing everything we can to get a guilty verdict.” 

Herrington’s attorney, Kevin Horan, was not at the grand jury hearing on Monday. A state representative, Horan was at the Capitol working on a bill when reached by a Mississippi Today reporter on Monday afternoon. He said he was not expecting to hear anything about the case. 

“I’m fixin’ to do a bill in about 30 seconds,” he said. 

It is unclear who testified before the grand jury hearing, though Johnson said that she spoke with Jay Lee’s mom, Stephanie Lee, as she was leaving the courthouse. 

At a preliminary hearing last fall, an OPD detective presented evidence obtained from Herrington’s computer and cell phone. That included Snapchat messages sent between Herrington and Lee the night that Lee went missing, and a Google search that Herrington made as Lee was coming over to his house that said, “how long does it take to strangle someone gabby petito.”

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.