• Jim Leach


Donna Perry's body was found near the Hatchie Refuge in Haywood County in 1986.

A recent article written by Cassandra Stephenson in the Jackson Sun (Jackson Tn. March 31, 2019) described efforts of the Innocence Project to examine the brutal murder of Donna Perry of Haywood County Tennessee in 1986. Jimmy Campbell was arrested for the crime. Following his arrest Mr. Campbell confessed and eventually pleaded guilty to the murder. Ms. Stephenson did a good job of objective reporting especially considering there are limited court records or media accounts about the case since the only court proceedings involved a suppression hearing in reference to the confession and the acceptance of Campbell’s guilty plea. The killer was paroled in March 2018 after spending over 30 years in prison.

The article quotes Innocence Project staff attorney Bryce Benjet as saying, “This is the kind of case where certainly all of the risk factors for a wrongful confession are there.” He goes on to discuss such things as mental disabilities, lengthy interrogation, and lack of other physical evidence. He says Campbell was first diagnosed with mental retardation in 1972 and had been a patient at Western Mental Health Institute 3 times. According to a court ordered evaluation, Campbell had behavioral problems, struggled in school, had difficulty controlling his emotions and experienced hallucinations.

While we would not disagree that a person with these personality characteristics might be prone to making a false confession, these same characteristics are exhibited by people who resort to violent behavior as a means of coping. Perhaps if a person with this type of personality was disappointed, frustrated, or felt rejected, he might respond by a violent outburst, such as stabbing someone 20 or 30 times and beating them to death.

According to the article, clinical psychologist John E. Sawyer wrote that Campbell might be unable to “withstand stressful situations”. He might attempt to avoid and escape the stressful situation by fabricating any story that might “cause immediate reduction” of the stress.

It is not unusual for a person who has stabbed another human more than 20 times and then brutally beaten them until he was sure they were dead, to be a bit stressed when the police begin to ask questions about the murder. They can relieve the stress by telling the truth about what they have done and removing the guilt from their conscience.

There is also mention of the length of time Campbell was interviewed.

Our apologies to the people from the Innocence Project, but the length of time the interviewing process takes is totally dependent on how long it takes the person being interviewed to tell the truth. It would please the police if murderers would call, make an appointment for an interview and as soon as they are read their rights, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It just doesn’t happen that way very often. In this particular case, it was never disputed that Mr. Campbell was given his rights to silence under the Miranda ruling every time he was questioned. The defendant confirmed this in open court several times when asked by Circuit Judge German. Campbell also stated he understood his rights to silence. In other words, by his own admission, he understood he could stop answering questions at an time. He also understood the would court appoint him an attorney any time he wanted one.

The Innocence Project comments on the lack of physical evidence. The police can only deal with the evidence they have. Evidence cannot be manufactured. In this case, all of the evidence that was discovered was tested and pointed to Mr. Campbell as the guilty party.

The Innocence Project is asking for DNA testing to be performed. There is a very small chance any evidence of value for DNA testing will be discovered. Thirty years ago no one had any idea DNA testing would be available in the future and the way evidence was packaged did not protect the integrity of the evidence for such an extended length of time. It is worth noting that the mere presence or absence of DNA evidence does not necessarily prove guilt or innocence. DNA, much like a fingerprint, is circumstantial evidence and most of the time an investigation is required to give meaning to circumstantial evidence.

There are also claims in the article that certain court rulings may have been unconstitutional. The Court of Criminal Appeals as well as the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Judge Clayburn Peeples denied a motion for DNA testing and the Innocence Project specifically questions the constitutionality of this ruling. Judge Peeples has taught Criminal Justice in college, served as an Assistant District Attorney, then as Attorney General and currently is a Circuit Court Judge. Judge Peeples is probably at least as knowledgeable concerning constitutional law as the staff attorneys with the Innocence Project.

As mentioned earlier, Innocence Project staff raised the possibility that Mr. Campbell made a false confession. While false confessions occur, they are very rare and there is no evidence in this case that the defendant’s confession was anything but willful and truthful. He told certain things no one but the murderer could have known. Some would suggest he could have been given these facts (this is known as “leading” the suspect) in order to make his confession more credible. The investigators involved in this case were very professional and their integrity was of the highest level.

The Innocence Project does a great job and the people who work with the program have the best intentions. In this particular case, Mr. Campbell confessed, pleaded guilty and the conviction was upheld through the appeals process. The case was investigated thoroughly and properly. We know because we were there. Jimmy Campbell is guilty of this murder.

The author, Jim Leach, served as Special Agent in Charge for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Director of Criminal Investigations with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. He is the author of “ You Can Tell ME, a simple guide to effective interviewing” which may be found at in paperback and Kindle versions.

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