His mother was murdered by his step-brother. He’s now fighting his release from prison.
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - It was 1:00 a.m. on January 6, 2003 when a Chevrolet pickup truck was discovered in the woods of Brandon, Mississippi.
In the back of the truck were two Rubbermaid totes. Inside, the bodies of James Williams, Jr. and his wife, Cynthia Williams.
It was a grisly sight. The Williams had both been shot by a .22 rifle. Then whoever killed the couple had attempted to dismember them in order to fit their full bodies inside the totes.
Police who were first on the scene that night thought the bodies were mannequins due to the awkward positions in which the bodies were displayed.
“It was traumatic for all the investigators and police officers that were investigating that,” said Byron McDaniel, the chief of Brandon police at the time. “...It was a horrific sight.”
The couple had gone missing nearly a week prior, three days after Christmas of 2002. No foul play was suspected until January 5 when traces of blood were discovered inside their Jackson home.
Their killer: the 17-year-old son of James Williams, Jr. And now, 20 years later, James Williams III is set to be released from prison.
On April 15, Brenda Rankin received a letter from the State of Mississippi Parole Board.
“Dear Ms. Rankin: Please be advised that on April 12, 2023, the Parole Board granted Offender James Williams parole.”
In a little more than a month, the man who killed her sister would be a free man.
“We understand this decision may come as a disappointment to you,” the letter continued. “However, the board believes Offender James Williams is able and willing to be a law-abiding citizen...”
Zeno Mangum, the son of Cindy Williams, called the day the letter arrived “among the worst in my life.”
How could this happen? Zeno thought, saying his family had been assured for the last decade by the Parole Board that his step-brother would never be released from prison.
In a statement to WLBT News, Jeffrey Belk, the current chairman of the State of Mississippi Parole Board, wrote that, “James Williams was 17 at the time of the crimes and was resentenced on the Homicide/Murder charges and given a 1/6/2013 parole eligibility date.
“At his hearing, all things were considered by the Board and he received the majority votes required to be granted parole. Although contacted ahead of time, none of the registered victims sent the Board an objection to James Williams possible parole.”
Zeno counters this claim, saying that his family was not notified in order to object.
There is a two-year age difference between Zeno and James, and Zeno was not living with Cindy and James Jr. at the time of the murders. They were only step-brothers for a little more than a year before Cindy and James Jr. were killed.
“I never thought anything sinister of him,” Zeno says of James, “but I did think he was strange.”
Zeno describes the thought of James being paroled as “terrifying,” adding, “How do I know he wouldn’t come after me? How do I know he wouldn’t come after some of my family?”
These are questions that resemble ones posed by former Brandon police chief Byron McDaniel.
“Do you really want to risk this, especially after such extreme circumstances?” he asked. “An individual like this back in the public?”
Below, Zeno Mangum becomes emotional while reflecting on how the death of his mother has impacted his life.
Jake Howard with the MacArthur Justice Center is the attorney for James Williams and has represented him for his last two parole hearings.
As posted on their website, the MacArthur Justice Center represents those “abused by our oppressive criminal legal system and fight to vindicate their rights, hold people with power accountable and reshape the law going forward.”
Howard says that the MJC has had a long-term project representing clients who were sentenced to life for crimes committed while they were minors.
In 2005, James was found guilty of murdering his father and step-mother and was sentenced to more than 60 years without the possibility of parole.
However, seven years later, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minor offenders was unconstitutional.
Howard calls James’ case “extraordinary,” saying that “it’s rare that you get a chance to represent someone like James who has been able to take advantage of the limited opportunities for rehabilitative programming that’s offered by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.”
Since being sentenced, James has received a Bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and became the Minister of Music for Parchman’s Koinonia Church.
Howard called James a “moral leader” among the inmates at the Marshall County Correctional Facility, where he has served as a missionary and field minister.
“Had [James] continued to be denied parole, it sends a terrible message to everyone else who’s incarcerated, which is: You can do everything right. You can devote yourself to helping others. You can turn your life over to Christ. You can do all the sorts of things that James has done, and we’re not gonna let you go,” Howard stated. “That’s what parole is about. It’s about incentivizing rehabilitation...”
“As I told the Board at James’s hearing: If James Williams hasn’t earned the privilege of supervised release on parole, then I’m not sure who could,” Howard told WLBT.
Howard says that “no one in society has anything to fear” in regard to James’ potential release, calling the crimes of 2002 an “isolated incident.”
If released, James will initially live with his mother and step-father near Pelahatchie, Mississippi. He hopes to one day become a chaplain at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.
There is a possibility that James Williams’ parole can be rescinded up until the time he is released from prison.
Because of this, Zeno and his family have gone on a media blitz, taking to Facebook and speaking to multiple media outlets, asking for the public’s help in stopping James’ release.
“James Williams III is a cold-blooded killer that has never shown an ounce of remorse for the murders and subsequent devastation that he created for my family,” Zeno wrote in a statement days after James’ parole was revealed.
He then asked the public to write and call the members of the Parole Board while also supplying every members’ email address and phone number.
Price Wallace, the Representative from Mississippi’s District 77, wrote in a Facebook post that he has spoken with both former-House Speaker Philip Gunn and Governor Tate Reeves about the parole of James Williams.
District 62 Representative Tom Weathersby also wrote on Facebook that he hopes the Board realizes “the error of their ways!”
A petition to stop the parole of James Williams III has garnered more than 900 signatures as of Monday.
The latest development: the Parole Board has scheduled an impromptu conference call regarding the parole of James for Tuesday, April 25, at 2:30 p.m.
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