A Lafayette County grand jury indicted Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr., the Ole Miss graduate from a connected North Mississippi family, for the murder of Black, queer student Jimmie “Jay” Lee.
A filing from the Lafayette County Circuit Court states that jurors on Tuesday indicted Herrington on charges of capital murder because he killed Lee while kidnapping him. Capital murder is punishable by the death penalty or life in prison in Mississippi.
The decision, which means the case could go to trial, comes as Lee’s body has been missing for more than 260 days. Herrington was arrested for Lee’s murder on July 22 last year. The theory of the case that the prosecution presented at the preliminary hearing last fall is that Herrington killed Lee to keep their casual sexual relationship a secret — something Herrington’s defense attorney deemed “sensational.”
Lee’s disappearance caught national attention last year in part because of the fear it sparked in Oxford’s tight-knit LGBTQ+ community. Some students, feeling unsafe, vowed not to return to the University of Mississippi for the fall semester. Many others have started a local movement called “Justice for Jay Lee” that wants to see Herrington convicted.
News of the indictment spread yesterday afternoon before the “true bill,” the document showing a grand jury finding, was uploaded into the court system.
“Victory!” members of Justice for Jay Lee said after they heard about the decision while waiting in front of the courthouse.
On Wednesday morning, Steven Jubera, the assistant district attorney working on the case, said the indictment is “the beginning of a long process.”
“Oxford Police Department spent thousands of hours doing everything possible to get us to the point where we have an indictment, and now we’re working towards getting a trial setting date for Mr. Herrington to bring peace to the Lee family,” Jubera said.
The Oxford Police Department released a statement thanking law enforcement and the district attorney’s office for their “hard work during this investigation.” OPD said that it has not stopped looking for Lee’s body.
In a text message to Mississippi Today, Herrington’s defense attorney Kevin Horan said “the return of a much publicized indictment by the grand jury is simply the next step in the process.”
Herrington’s family has maintained his innocence in interviews with news outlets.
“We’re all in shock, we’re all devastated, and we are all looking forward to proving his innocence,” Herrington’s half-brother, Tevin Coleman, told Mississippi Today last year.
His family, which runs a large Apostolic Christian church in Grenada, is well-connected in north Mississippi. Last fall, dozens of people, including powerful local officials in Grenada like the superintendent, wrote letters to the court on Herrington’s behalf.
“I have also known Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr. since he was a small child, never had any problems with him,” Grenada County Sheriff Roland Fair wrote to the court.
It has not been clear to what extent OPD is working with law enforcement in Grenada, where Lee’s body might be located. Fair told Mississippi Today in September last year that no one from Oxford has reached out to him personally even though officers executed a search warrant on Herrington’s parent’s house in late July.
OPD has defended its work on the case as well as its choice to share little information with the community about the investigation.
It’s unknown what evidence was presented by the prosecution to the grand jury on Monday, which was specially convened for a day-and-a-half to hear Herrington’s case due to the “amount of evidence.” The true bill lists the witnesses as OPD detective Ryan Baker, Lee’s mother, Herrington’s parents and uncle, and Angela Fletcher, a DeSoto County sheriff’s officer.
At Herrington’s preliminary hearing last fall, an OPD detective laid out some of the evidence that led to his arrest. Video surveillance footage and Snapchat data and messages show Lee going over to Herrington’s apartment early in the morning of July 8 after the two had a fight.
Snapchat location data put Lee in the vicinity of Herrington’s apartment for the last time early in the morning on July 8. Soon after, video footage from Walmart showed Herrington viewing garbage cans and purchasing duct tape. Later that day, more footage shows Herrington retrieving a long-handled shovel and wheelbarrow from his parent’s house and putting it into the back of a moving truck.
Next, Herrington will appear in court for arraignment so he can be formally notified of the charge.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.