Tyler Edmonds was about to take the stage to speak to a room full of attorneys in Biloxi earlier this month when he received some unfortunate news.
A technology mishap would prevent the West Point native from using his notes when addressing Mississippi Public Defenders Association members, he learned, forcing him to tell his story off-the-cuff.
Edmonds wasn’t too rattled. After all, it’s his story, one he knows by heart and that has consequences he still lives with every day. And if he has his way, it won’t be long before many others know the story, too.
“I feel like if I can share my story, and it can help someone else, that matters more to me than anything,” he said.
This month marks 10 years since Edmonds was released from Walnut Grove prison after serving three years of a life sentence for the murder of his brother-in-law, Joey Fulgham.
Edmonds was 13 when he confessed to the murder and 15 when an Oktibbeha County Circuit Court jury convicted him. He was 19 when the jury in a new trial acquitted him.
Now Edmonds, robbed of his teenage years because of a wrongful conviction, is seeking $150,000 from Oktibbeha County through the Mississippi Compensation for Victims of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act. The act provides compensation of up to $50,000 per year for the time a defendant spent in prison after a wrongful conviction.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has heard arguments on Edmonds’ compensation suit but has yet to rule.
Edmonds believes he is entitled to the compensation on two fronts: his confession was coerced and he was too young to be tried as an adult for capital murder.
“The more I thought about it, honestly, the more pissed off I became,” Edmonds said. “…I think with the benefit of retrospect, I was able as an adult (to) look back and realize just how screwed up it all was.
“If a 13-year-old can’t drive a car, can’t sign a lease, can’t aJim Waide of Tupelo, say Edmonds only confessed after his half-sister, Kristi Fulgham — who is now serving out a life sentence for Joey Fulgham’s murder — asked him to, telling him authorities would not be as hard on him as they were on her.
That wasn’t the case. Edmonds was tried as an adult for capital murder, one he swears he didn’t commit. In fact, he said he was just a scared 13-year-old who had never even been to the principal’s office at school who suddenly found himself in an interrogation room for hours, pleading his innocence to police and being called a liar.
Finally, he gave in, and confessed, he said.
In 2007, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Edmonds’ trial had been unfair and that he should get a new one. That jury acquitted him.
“After it was all over, it was really good to know I did not have to worry about (the trial) anymore,” Edmonds said. “But … that’s when I had to start the work of figuring out, ‘What now? What next?”
One immediate answer was to seek reparations for the three years he spent in prison.
But the circuit court dismissed Edmonds’ case claiming because he had confessed, he had fabricated evidence that led to the conviction, which disqualifies him from compensation.
“Our argument is, assuming he fabricated evidence, it was not for the purpose of being convicted, it was for the purposes of protecting his sister,” Waide said. “He wasn’t trying to be convicted. (Kristi Fulgham) told him, ‘You can’t be convicted. You’re 13 years old.'”
Waide took the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which heard his argument Jan. 24. Waide and Edmonds are expecting to hear the high court’s ruling sometime this summer.
Finding his voice
After his acquittal, Edmonds returned to West Point. But the transition to a new life of freedom was difficult, he said. He couldn’t even go to the grocery store without people recognizing him as Tyler Edmonds, the teenager who went to prison.
About three years ago, he moved to Florida. Now 27, he works designing and embroidering logos for scrubs and uniforms in doctor’s offices and other work places. He has new friends who got to know him before he told them what had happened to him. He doesn’t want his story to define him, he said, but he also wants people to know it — if only so it results in changes to the justice system. That’s more important to him than money, he said.
“I finally feel like I actually have a voice now, and I get to speak out,” he said.
He’s not sure how he wants to go about doing that. Aside from the Mississippi Public Defenders Association meeting earlier this month, he’s spoken with reporters from national news media about what happened to him. Last week, NBC aired a piece on Edmonds that has been shared more than 41,000 times on social media and viewed more than 17 million times as of press time.
“I hope by the time all of this is over, I will have raised enough hell to maybe get someone to pay attention and say, ‘We need to look at this and maybe we need to make some changes,'” Edmonds said. “And if I have to kick and scream and raise hell … I plan on doing it.”
The shadow of doubt
Edmonds’ taped confession is enough to make some still doubt Edmonds’ innocence in the case. Forrest Allgood, who was district attorney at the time, said he watched the video before Edmonds’ indictment.
“It was one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen,” Allgood said.
In the video, Edmonds’ mother enters the interrogation room after Edmonds has already confessed to law enforcement and asks Edmonds what he did. He then confesses to her as well.
“I do not believe he lied to his mother,” Allgood said.
Allgood did not try the case himself and said he couldn’t speak to the specifics, but he trusted the judgment of his assistant district attorneys and still does.
He also said it is legal in Mississippi for 13-year-olds to be tried as adults if they’re being accused of crimes for which the penalty is life sentence.
“He can say that’s a mistake,” he said. “That was the law. That was what was required.”
Edmonds wishes there had been someone in the DA’s Office or with the police who knew something about child psychology and how to work with adolescents or children.
“It was wrong for me to lie,” he said. “… But I’m not the only one who made mistakes.”
He’s afraid those involved in his conviction — law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges specifically — don’t realize what he went through and refuse to change. It’s frustrating, he said.
He lost his chance for an education — he spent three years in prison working out of workbooks sent by supporters and family members and without tutors to help him. He now has a GED, but despite going back to school several times, he does not have a degree from a four-year school, which he says he needs for the kinds of jobs he’d like. He also lost out on basic experiences every teenager gets. Put bluntly, he said, he lost his childhood.
“You can’t put a price on that,” Edmonds said.