Alabama man set to be executed Thursday maintains innocence in elderly couple's murder

An Alabama man convicted in the violent deaths of a small-town elderly couple is set to be executed on Thursday after spending nearly two decades on death row.

This week the 11th Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals denied two defense motions seeking a delay in the execution of Jamie Ray Mills, who maintains his innocence in the 2004 beating deaths of Floyd and Vera Hill. The defense can still seek a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In numerous appeals, Mills argues that he was convicted based on the “perjured testimony” of his wife, JoAnn Mills, who says she witnessed the attack.

Jamie Mills, 50, argues that prosecutors failed to disclose a deal they made with JoAnn Mills, violated his constitutional rights, and undermined the fairness of the trial and verdict, according to court documents filed last month.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm argues otherwise, saying in court documents that JoAnn Mills offered “graphic testimony” of what her husband did to the victims and what the two of them did "thereafter in an effort to cover their tracks.”

Additionally, the evidence against Jamie Mills was so "damning” that prosecutors would have been able to convict him even without JoAnn Mills’ testimony, Hamm says.

Jamie Ray Mills is scheduled to be executed by the state of Alabama on Thursday, May 30, in connection with the murders of Floyd and Vera Hill in 2004.
Jamie Ray Mills is scheduled to be executed by the state of Alabama on Thursday, May 30, in connection with the murders of Floyd and Vera Hill in 2004.

What led up to murder of Floyd and Vera Hill?

Jamie Mills was down on his luck in the weeks leading up to June 24, 2004. That's the day when Floyd Hill, 87, and his wife of 55 years, Vera Hill, 72, were bludgeoned to death at their home in the small city of Guin, about 70 miles northwest of Birmingham.

Mills was out of a job, had been jailed for falling behind on child support payments, his parents were dying, and he had relapsed into drug use, court records show.

The theory presented in trial proceedings was that Jamie and JoAnn Mills were looking for a way to get more money for drugs, deciding to rob the Hills because they were known to have large amounts of cash stashed at home.

Jamie Mills began to use drugs as a teenager, which were introduced to him by his parents, who were addicted to meth and dealt drugs in front of him and his siblings, according to a May 2017 court filing.

It wasn’t long before Mills became addicted to methamphetamine himself, using almost every day. He managed to get clean in 2003, but began to use methamphetamine again in the spring of 2004, citing “multiple stressors.”

Mills only had $14 to his name when he was arrested, living off of savings he accumulated from work as a mechanic.

Request to use couple's phone turns violent

Jamie and JoAnn Mills spent the night before the murders high after smoking meth, according to a sentencing order filed in 2007. They left home at 5 p.m. the next day, making a stop to buy cigarettes before heading to the Hills’ house, the order says.

“Jamie told JoAnn that he was going to talk to a man about some money and for her to just follow his lead,” the order says. The Mills arrived at the Hills' home and asked to borrow their phone. The Hills' let them in and the four chatted easily, court records show.

Vera Hill mentioned that they had some items available for sale, insisting that JoAnn take a look at the items stored in their shed.  JoAnn Mills and Vera Hill were making their way back to the front of the house, toward the porch when they heard a loud noise coming from the shed, where they had left Jamie Mills and Floyd Hill after taking a look at the items, court records say.

JoAnne Mills turned to look, saying that she saw her husband with something raised over his shoulder “with both hands as if he was swinging something,” court documents say. The women hurried towards the shed, finding Floyd Hill on the ground.

Robbery gone wrong: Elderly couple struck repeatedly

Jamie Mills hit Vera Hill in the back of the head with a ball-peen hammer as soon as the women walked in, striking her again when she tried to get up, the sentencing order says. JoAnn Mills testified that she was in the corner with her eyes closed, listening to the sound of the hammer repeatedly striking the couple.

Mills handed his wife the hammer, a tire tool and a machete, and the couple padlocked the shed shut before they went back inside the Hills' home and took a locked tackle box, Vera Hill’s purse, a phone and a police scanner, the document says.

The Mills recovered $140 and some medication from the tackle box, driving back to their own house. The couple then called Benjie Howe, identified in court records as a friend who came over to their home to buy some of the pain pills they snagged, court records say.

The Mills stored the rest of the Hills’ belongings in a bag, placing it in their shed before leaving for the night. The couple headed to Jamie Mills’ father’s house to “play dominos and spend the night,” according to court documents.

They returned home the next morning, to find that the bag with the items had been torn open by dogs. They placed the items in a duffel bag, including a bloody T-shirt and pants, storing it in Jamie Mills’ vehicle, court records say.

Officers intercepted both Jamie and JoAnn Mills as they were leaving their home. Inside the couple's car: items that had been stolen from the Hills and the suspected murder weapons.

What happened at trial?

Mills' trial attorney, John Wiley, argued to jurors that Mills didn't deserve the death penalty for a number of reasons: Mills was on drugs and couldn't have known what he was doing, he was under extreme stress from things that "were stacking up against him," and he had two then-teenage sons who could learn from their father how not to go down the wrong path.

Additionally, Wiley told jurors that it would be morally wrong for them to recommend the death penalty.

"A recommendation of a death sentence for Jamie Mills is you killing another man, and it's wrong and it’s immoral and it’s barbaric and you shouldn’t do it and you’re going to be held accountable for it if you do," he told them.

Jack Bostick, the district attorney who argued for the death penalty against Mills, told jurors that the crime went far beyond the bounds of something like a shooting death.

"This was up close, this was savage, this was personal − to take a ballpeen hammer, a rusty machete, a rusty lug wrench and repeatedly cut and beat on two human beings − it’s not a random act of violence," he said. "It's deliberate, It's beyond brutal, beyond savage ... It's almost beyond imagination that anyone could be that cruel to another human being, to have that done to them."

He added: "The Hills didn't have a chance."

‘Unidentified’ DNA found on items recovered, death penalty sentence affirmed

Jamie Mills has spent the last 15 years trying and failing to overturn his execution, citing attorney failures, procedural errors and lack of evidence. Mostly, he has claimed that the state has failed to seriously investigate Benjie Howe.

Howe was known to borrow the Mills' car from time to time and had just "as much access to the vehicle on the day of the offense as Mr. Mills, having been at the home both before and after the offense,” Jamie Mill’s legal team argued.

Howe denied any participation in the murders, providing two alibis to confirm his whereabouts for the hours before and after he visited the Mills. There was nothing tying Howe to the scene, including DNA. But neither was Mills’ DNA.

Other "unidentified" DNA, which was not a match to Howe or Mills, was found on the items recovered from the Mills' car. But the Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS, failed to render a match.

The Hills’ DNA, though, was found on several items recovered from the Mills' car, according to court documents.

“While this DNA testing did not irrefutably identify Mills or Howe as the murderer, the fact that the DNA did not produce a ... hit on Howe was unhelpful to Mills’ defense,” according to court documents filed by Steve Marshall, Alabama Attorney General.

Despite a lack of DNA evidence incriminating Jamie Mills, the state says that all the other evidence presented over the course of the case was “overwhelming.”

Contributing: Amanda Lee Myers and Marty Roney

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama man set for execution maintains innocence in double murder