Evidence sought to exonerate man convicted in 1986 slaying
BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. — The headline was deceivingly simple: “Fisherman finds body.”
The few paragraphs beneath that summed up the gruesome murder of 25-year-old Donna Perry could tell nothing of the decades of grief, hundreds of pages of court documents and seemingly endless questions that would follow.
After 32 years behind bars, the man convicted of kidnapping Perry and bludgeoning her to death was released on parole on March 22.
While members of Perry’s family regard Jimmy Edward Campbell’s re-entry into society with dread, lawyers at the Innocence Project, tasked with exonerating the wrongfully convicted with DNA testing, ardently pursue proof of his innocence.
“It’s very complicated, because I support what the Innocence Project does, and I do know that there are people that are wrongfully convicted all the time,” Perry’s daughter Kay Arnold said. “In this particular circumstance, it’s so conflicting because we have confessions … I’ve spent my entire life saying, ‘This is the man that did it.’”
Donna Perry spent most of her life in Brownsville, a small town with a population of just under 10,500 in the 1980s.
She was last seen leaving her mother’s home in the Hillville community around 10:30 p.m. on July 10, 1986. Someone saw her walking near the intersection of Hillville Road and Tennessee Route 179 late that night.
An unnamed fisherman found Perry’s body, severely beaten and stabbed at least 20 times, early the next morning on a gravel road in the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge. An autopsy would later identify blunt trauma to her head and neck as the cause of death. She had multiple stab wounds and bruises and fractures in her hands. Her pants were pulled down — the autopsy notes the presence of semen.
In the coming days, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would set up a road block near where she was found and go door to door in the Hillville community looking for answers, to no avail.
But 15 days later, 26-year-old Jimmy Edward Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence. On July 30, after multiple days of interrogation, Campbell confessed to stabbing Perry and hitting her over the head with a tire iron.
In July 1986, her daughter Kay was about three months away from her second birthday.
“This is the kind of case where certainly all of the risk factors for a wrongful confession are there,” Innocence Project staff attorney Bryce Benjet said.
The Innocence Project searches for cases where DNA testing can prove innocence. Benjet picked up Campbell’s case in 2018, about 12 years after Campbell filed his first motion to request DNA testing of the evidence in the case (the motion was denied in 2007).
“This is kind of a pretty straightforward case in a lot of ways for us,” Benjet added.
Innocence Project cases must involve biological evidence to test, but the group also looks for “risk factors” that surround false confessions: suspect characteristics like mental disabilities, lengthy interrogation and lack of other physical evidence.
According to Benjet, Campbell’s case fits the bill.
Campbell was first diagnosed with mild mental retardation in 1972 at the Jackson Counseling Center when he was 12. Between 1973 and 1985, he was admitted into the Western Mental Health Institute three times, at one point staying for 54 weeks. He had behavioral problems, struggled in school, had difficulty controlling his emotions and experienced hallucinations, according to a court-ordered psychological evaluation completed in December 1986.
He had an IQ of 66. Clinical psychologist John E. Sawyer wrote that Campbell is “unable to withstand stressful situations.”
“When under periods of stress the patient’s memory is altered significantly with his attempts to avoid and escape … leading to his fabricating any story that will cause immediate reduction of the stress,” Sawyer’s report reads.
His four-day interrogation — which produced multiple, sometimes contradictory statements — “induced extreme anxiety and apprehension in this patient,” Sawyer wrote.
“I could not professionally support that any confession given or signed by this patient is valid.”
Campbell’s first statement only includes one mention of Perry: He said he last saw her briefly at Vernell’s Tavern in Brownsville on July 9, 1986. They didn’t speak. He told TBI special agents that Perry had never been in his car.
Campbell’s second statement, written just one hour later, tells a different story.
He said he saw Perry walking along Highway 76 as he drove past the grocery store late on July 10. He gave her a ride and they stopped on a gravel road so he could go to the bathroom.
“She asked me if I had any money,” the statement reads. “I said no. (Then) she brought out a knife, I don’t know where from. Then everything went blank after that. The knife was pointed toward my gut. I just went berserk. I don’t remember what happened after that. She could have been alive when I left.”
In subsequent statements and additions, Campbell adds that he and Perry had sex that night, and he defended himself against her knife with a tire iron he pulled from his car. Later statements mention Campbell discovering that he lost a belt buckle, then state that it probably came off when Perry hit him with his belt after he struck her with the tire iron.
“I also had on the black belt, with the buckle you showed me,” the statement reads. ”… That is the buckle you found out there where Donna was found — it’s mine.”
A broken knife blade was found at the scene. Campbell said in his third statement that he remembered the blade breaking “the last time I stabbed her in the hip.” He maintained that he didn’t know what happened to the handle of the knife. Later, he said he did not remember having the knife at all.
Some of Campbell’s statements were ruled inadmissible in court, but four statements and their many addendums were deemed admissible because they were either “spontaneous” and “voluntary” or Campbell had been advised of his rights. All of the statements were read aloud to Campbell, who could not read or write.
Benjet said this “evolution of statements” is common in confessions that were elicited over several hours of interrogation. Interrogators can unintentionally provide a suspect with information about the case through the questions they pose, Benjet said.
“Especially when you have these lengthy interrogations, there is ample opportunity for information to be provided to the suspect through the interrogation, and a significant pressure on the suspect to make statements that will, in their view, satisfy the interrogators,” he said.
Campbell’s case never went to trial.
The Haywood County grand jury indicted Campbell on one charge of first degree murder on August 11, 1986. In December, the state of Tennessee filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty should Campbell be convicted.
Psychologist Richard Drewery of the Jackson Counseling Center wrote a letter declaring Campbell competent to stand trial in January 1987.
“He understands the nature of the legal process and the charges pending against him … he recognizes the consequences that can follow from the charges … (and) he is capable of assisting his counsel and participating in his own defense,” Drewery wrote.
He also opined that Campbell knew right from wrong at the time of the murder, ruling out the possibility of using the insanity defense.
Campbell pleaded guilty to reduced charges of second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping on Jan. 12, 1987 — one day before his trial was slated to begin — in the Haywood County Circuit Court.
He was sentenced to a total of 50 years in state prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Judge Dick Jerman promised to write a letter recommending he be placed in a criminal institution for the mentally ill, and gave him 154 days credit for time served.
“We went along with the murder plea because there was too much of a chance that he might have received the death penalty,” Campbell’s lawyer James Haywood told Jackson Sun reporter Norman Parish in a 1987 article. “After the state released results of the blood tests of the blood found on Donna Perry, both the type and the sub-types matched his (Campbell’s). When I told him about the blood tests, he confessed.”
District Attorney General Clayburn Peeples told Parish that the prosecution accepted Campbell’s plea due to “questions about Campbell’s mental capability” and “questions about whether the death occurred in self-defense.”
“I feel like justice was done,” Perry’s aunt, Nell Cassatta, told Parish.
Campbell maintained that he could not remember details about the fight throughout his plea deal. After he was sentenced, Cassatta told The Jackson Sun that Campbell was just telling “his side of the story.”
“Donna will never be able to tell her side of the story,” she said in the 1987 article.
Campbell filed multiple petitions for post-conviction relief in the following months, even filing a motion to withdraw his guilty plea on April 1, 1987.
He claimed his counsel was ineffective, that his mental capacity hindered his ability to make decisions and that his confessions were thus illegally obtained.
He said he was taking the anti-psychotic medication Thorazine at the time of his guilty plea, rendering him unable to make clear decisions. Agitation and nervousness are commonly listed side effects for the medication, which has since been discontinued, but not due to safety reasons or ineffectiveness, according to the FDA. In severe cases, Thorazine can cause confusion.
Campbell filed a motion of discovery to obtain proof from the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department that he was taking the medication at the time, but it didn’t get far. All of Campbell’s post-conviction relief petitions were eventually dismissed.
The courts claimed that Campbell underwent two psychological evaluations, was deemed fit for trial, and was properly advised of his rights. Campbell’s lawyer even hired a private investigator to assist in Campbell’s defense, the court said. When Campbell entered his guilty plea, Jerman asked Campbell to confirm his understanding of his decision multiple times.
The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson upheld the trial court’s decision on July 9, 1987. The Supreme Court of Tennessee rejected Campbell’s application for appeal on July 5, 1988.
On August 25, 2004, Campbell filed a motion to request DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case. Judge Clayburn Peeples, who presided over Campbell’s motion 20 years earlier, denied this motion in 2007 in a decision that The Innocence Project claims is not constitutionally sound.
The Innocence Project got involved in Campbell’s case in 2018, filing a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. A judge granted the motion in December, setting off the search for 30-year-old evidence.
So far, none of the evidence Campbell requested has been found. Benjet said this is not unusual for cases this old; locating archived evidence takes time. Documents from the TBI suggest that some of the evidence may have been discarded, but there’s no accurate record, he added.
The Innocence Project claims that if DNA testing had existed at the time of the Campbell’s guilty plea, Campbell would not have been convicted.
“The requested DNA testing can both exonerate Mr. Campbell and identify Ms. Perry’s murderer,” Campbell’s latest motion reads.
Benjet said he’s not aware of any physical evidence, like fingerprints, currently tying Campbell to the crime. Because the case never went to trial and TBI does not release investigative records unless by court order, whether or not this evidence exists cannot currently be confirmed.
The ABO blood typing that connected samples from the scene to Campbell in the 1980s is not conclusive, either. Blood typing only serves to narrow the pool of possible suspects and exclude individuals with certain blood types.
“These are very difficult cases to come in 30 years later and try to figure out what happened,” Benjet said. “In large part, that’s the advantage of the DNA testing, because biology is what it is. Memories fade, but that’s not going to change a DNA result.”
In the meantime, both Perry’s family and Campbell are in a sort of justice limbo.
“If we were to find out that he didn’t do it, if there was DNA evidence that could exonerate him, then by all means, that’s fabulous,” Perry’s daughter Kay Arnold said. “But then where do we go? It’s an emotional roller coaster every day trying to figure it out.”
Campbell walked out of jail on March 22. Arnold still believes he’s guilty. She said she’s spent a large part of her life trying to keep him in prison.
“I try to look at it from a very logical viewpoint,” Arnold said. “I do know that there have been coerced confessions in the past with other people that The Innocence Project has worked with, so I try to remain open-minded about that.
“But there have been comments that have been made at parole hearings of things that I feel like he would really only know if he was there. I really do feel like he’s the one that did it.”
Benjet said the work The Innocence Project does is limited primarily to forensic testing. He doesn’t know about what happened in parole proceedings. Campbell’s parole doesn’t change The Innocence Project’s goals for his case, he added.
“Even though he would be paroled, he’s still living under the cloud of this conviction, and we believe, and the judges found, that he has the right to do this DNA testing to resolve what is now a decades-long protestation of innocence,” Benjet said.
Arnold said she is fearful knowing that someone who is capable of kidnapping and murdering another person would be living alongside other members of the community. She no longer lives in Tennessee and tries to keep a low profile online — Campbell called her out by name at parole hearings, she said, and she’s wary.
Benjet said that from what he knows of Campbell, he’s done well in prison, working in a transitional work program that allowed him to take select jobs outside of the prison gates.
“He seems to be able to work within the structure that they’ve provided him, and my understanding is that he’s got reasonable supports in the community,” he said. “My hope is that he’ll do pretty well once he gets out.”
The bottom line, Benjet said, is the search for the truth.
“This is a case in which a judge has found that DNA testing has the capacity of proving guilt or innocence, so we hope we can find the evidence and really get to the bottom of all this.”