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The 5 Most Powerful People in Mississippi’s Hinds County Justice System

Four judges and the top prosecutor decide the fate of thousands in Hinds County courts each year. Here are their backstories.

A collage illustration shows black and white photos of three Black female circuit court judges, one Black male circuit court judge and one Black male district attorney. Faded images of Jackson, Mississippi, are on the edges of the illustration. Bright, curvy orange lines weave between the images.
Clockwise from top left: Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten, Circuit Court Senior Judge Winston Kidd, Circuit Court Judge Debra Hendricks Gibbs, Circuit Court Judge E. Faye Peterson and District Attorney Jody E. Owens II.

Thousands of people are arrested and prosecuted each year on felony charges in Jackson and Hinds County, Mississippi. Their fates are nearly always decided by five elected officials — the district attorney and four Circuit Court judges. The Marshall Project - Jackson profiled each official so you will better understand how criminal justice works in the county.

Jody E. Owens II, Hinds County District Attorney: From Advocate to Prosecutor
Judicial Career: Elected in 2019 on the Democratic ticket; reelected in 2023 to a four-year term.
Past Legal Work: Managing attorney and chief policy counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Mississippi, a racial justice and civil rights nonprofit organization.
Education: Howard University School of Law, JD, Washington, D.C., 2006

Hinds County District Attorney Jody E. Owens II fought for nearly a decade to reform Mississippi’s criminal justice system before becoming a part of it.

He left his career as a civil rights attorney in 2019 to become Hinds County’s chief prosecutor. He served as managing attorney and chief policy counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, where he filed lawsuits relating to inhumane conditions in prisons and jails, represented juvenile lifers in sentencing appeals, and led policy decisions for the organization across Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

“We changed a lot of laws in Mississippi,” Owens said of his time at the SPLC. He said he’s most proud of the reforms in the juvenile justice system, including the center’s involvement in raising the age at which children could be tried as adults. The center also worked to expand the number of offenses that could be expunged, or removed from their criminal records, for people who were convicted as youths.

His work with the SPLC also took him to every prison in the state to investigate their conditions. He said those visits showed him not only the need to reform how incarcerated people were treated, but also the “tremendous amount of injustice” in deciding who goes to prison.

A Black man with a goatee wearing a blue suit jacket speaks in front of a microphone.

Hinds County District Attorney Jody E. Owens II speaks at a hearing last year.

“We sit here in an office in the capital of a state that incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere in the world,” Owens said in an interview with The Marshall Project - Jackson. “While we all want public safety, we also have to realize as Mississippians, as a state, we’ve gotten something wrong in our approach.”

Owens’ decision to run for district attorney in 2019 was based on the power the office holds in making decisions about crime and punishment. Owens’s responsibilities include deciding who is charged with crimes and how they can be punished or rehabilitated. The office handles about 2,000 cases per year, according to the DA’s website.

The district attorney’s office convenes grand juries, consisting of registered voters in the county, which determine whether there is enough evidence to charge defendants with criminal offenses that will lead to trials. The office can also decide whether people accused of crimes can avoid trial, through diversion programs, including mental health evaluation, drug treatment or job skill development.

For people who have been convicted of a crime, the office also runs a reentry program in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union to provide services to defendants recently released from incarceration. The office also provides free expungement assistance, which can clear some criminal charges from a person’s record.

Owens’ staff consists of assistant district attorneys who prosecute cases in court, criminal investigators who gather evidence and ensure the evidence can be used in prosecution, program coordinators who oversee initiatives such as reentry and pretrial diversion, and administrative support staff.

As a former civil rights attorney, Owens is regarded as a progressive prosecutor. He ran his campaign based on ending mass incarceration. He has called for the elimination of cash bail and capital punishment. Mississippi has 35 people on death row, according to the state Department of Corrections, with two sentenced in Hinds County in 2006 and 2013, before Owens took office.

Owens says he uses a principle called “smart justice” to help reduce crime and build safer communities. Smart justice combines new programs, such as his 2022 partnership with the ACLU to launch a reentry assistance program for formerly incarcerated people, with established social services, such as addiction treatment through drug court and pretrial diversion for nonviolent defendants.

“You can’t solely prosecute yourself to a safer community,” Owens said. “We have to do more than we’re currently doing.” He said the county needs more programs and initiatives to impact youth and promote community involvement. In his 2022 District Attorney’s Office annual report, Owens listed programs such as an annual Christmas toy drive and victims’ assistance as signs of progress.

However, Owens maintained he is also tough on crime.

During his first term, he pursued and obtained a conviction in what he called the largest embezzlement scandal in the state’s history. In 2022, his office convicted former state Department of Human Rights head John Davis, in connection to the misuse of more than $77 million of federal welfare grant funds. Several others have pleaded guilty to charges relating to the funds, and prosecution is ongoing.

Owens’ office also convicted former Jackson Police Department officer Anthony Fox in the 2019 beating death of George Robinson, a decision that Owens said went against an unwritten code that held police officers as off-limits to prosecutors. Fox is currently serving five years in prison.

In addition to those high-profile convictions, he said he prioritizes prosecuting violent crimes over nonviolent offenses.

“We don’t need to spend taxpayer money on individuals who stole bubblegum. We need to make sure violent offenders are behind bars. We need to make sure we are putting programs in place that let individuals come back into society once they have shown they’re able and willing to,” Owens said in a 2019 interview with WJTV.

Owens’s criminal justice ideals, however, are not novel in the capital city, which has a history of organizing for civil rights that often places it at odds with the largely rural, White and conservative Republican state.

He found himself at the center of statewide controversy in July 2023 when Attorney General Lynn Fitch, an elected Republican, called to have Fox’s conviction overturned. She filed a request with the state appeals court, stating that “the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to allow a rational juror to convict Fox of culpable-negligence manslaughter.”

Owens, a Democrat, called the move political and “not based on substantive law,” in a statement following Fitch’s appeal. “It is unfortunate that not all elected officials take their constitutional charges as seriously as they should … Her filing is unprecedented because her role, in this instance, is to represent the State, i.e. the verdict returned by the jury. It is not her duty to substitute her opinion for theirs,” he wrote.

It was not the first time he went up against Fitch. After she petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court about the decision that would lead to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Owens pledged not to prosecute people seeking, providing or supporting abortions.

He has also publicly opposed House Bill 1020, the legislation that creates a separate court system, the Capitol Complex Improvement District Court. The court is set to have an unelected judge to be appointed by the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court and prosecutors to be appointed by Fitch. The sitting chief justice is Michael Randolph, a White Republican. Despite a lawsuit from civil rights groups that said the appointment of judges violated the rights of citizens to elect their judges, a federal judge allowed the law to go into effect this year.

Owens won reelection in 2023 over an independent candidate with 69% of the vote. His second term, he said, will focus on reducing the backlog of criminal cases that often leave people accused of crimes languishing in overcrowded jails as they wait for their cases to move through the system.

The district attorney acknowledged that his office has a long way to go. The average time it takes from arrest to final resolution of a case is about 16 months in Hinds County. Best practices around the nation, he said, are closer to one year.

Winston Kidd, Hinds County Circuit Court Senior Judge: My Goal is to Treat People ‘Equally and Fairly’
Judicial Career: Appointed in 2001; won his first four-year term in 2002; reelected in 2022.
Past Legal Work: Practiced civil law with private firm Walker & Walker, PLLC. Past president of the Magnolia Bar Association.
Education: Mississippi College School of Law, J.D., 1991

Hinds County Circuit Court Senior Judge Winston Kidd remembers the “Whites only” signs and segregated waiting rooms from his childhood in Decatur, Mississippi. He was born there in 1964, the year following the assassination of Decatur native and civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

When Evers was murdered in 1963, he was embroiled in a legal battle to desegregate public schools in Jackson. Six years later, Evers’ brother, Charles, was elected the first Black mayor of a racially mixed town in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

Growing up with that backdrop of civil rights activism and constantly reading about injustice, Kidd said, he developed an interest in the law. He had started his career as a respiratory therapist, but quickly made the switch to the legal profession.

A bald, Black man wearing a black robe listens while holding his eyeglasses in his hand.

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd during a hearing in 2013.

There was “something about the law that kept calling, so I decided to go to law school,” Kidd said in an interview with The Marshall Project - Jackson. “My main reason for wanting to go to law school was to try to affect our justice system and making sure that people could be treated equally and fairly.”

After obtaining his J.D. at Mississippi College School of Law, he worked at Walker & Walker, PLLC, in Jackson, where he primarily handled civil cases involving car accidents, medical malpractice and personal injury. Those cases, he said, gave him the trial experience necessary for the bench.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, appointed Kidd to the bench in 2001. He replaced James E. Graves Jr., who was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

After 22 years on the bench, Kidd is the senior judge of the Hinds County Circuit Court, which handles felony criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits involving claims of more than $250,000. Over the years, he has handled cases that received national attention, including the $11 million wrongful death lawsuit for Willie Jones Jr., and the murder trials of Elicia Hughes, which were dramatized on national TV.

Kidd’s service over two decades has not been without controversy. In 2011, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned a murder conviction in Kidd’s courtroom, citing errors in how the judge instructed the jury. The defendant, however, was retried in Kidd’s courtroom and convicted a second time.

Kidd’s time on the bench has changed his perspective on the judgeship, he said. Before his appointment, he had not handled felony cases, but he came into the position in the capital city with high crime rates and a heavy backlog. Over the years, he said, crime has increased, and his caseload has only gotten heavier.

When he entered office, he held civil trials frequently. Now, he said, he no longer strives to be a judge who spends all his time on trials, but a more effective judge who resolves cases. In addition to trials, felony cases can be resolved through plea deals or pre-trial diversion programs such as drug court for nonviolent crimes, which he presides over.

On a December day in the courtroom, Kidd’s voice competed with the creaking of old benches, the clinking of the shackled defendants, and later, brief shrieks from a fight just outside the courtroom’s heavy double doors. Despite the distractions, Kidd’s focus remained steady.

“Did you commit this crime?” he asked a young man entering a guilty plea to grand larceny. Before he accepted the plea, Kidd continued with more questions. “What did you do?” “Why did you commit this crime?”

“I was in a bad spot,” the defendant answered.

“What does that mean, ‘in a bad spot?’” Kidd asked.

Kidd listened intently as the defendant explained his circumstances before accepting the guilty plea.

“I care about people,” Kidd said. “Sometimes my court may go long because if I’m handing out a sentence that requires prison time, I want that person in front of me to know that this is not the end…. You’ve been given a second opportunity to learn from your mistakes.”

“I look back at situations where I’ve had to sentence a 15-year-old to life or give an 18-year-old 40 or 50 years in jail. Those are tough cases,” Kidd said. “I think some judges handle this job without having any feelings. I’m able to do it effectively, but I also have feelings. You remember those things when they happen.”

In his spare time, he tries to help with crime prevention through mentorships. He often speaks to youth, welcomes school groups into his courtroom, and is the coach of a high school mock trial team. He’s mentored elementary and high school students, as well as other attorneys.

“Kids, teenagers, some adults, look up to judges, and we carry a lot of influence. Hopefully, that’s a positive influence,” Kidd said. “So we have to be active in our community to an extent so that we can share our experiences inside the courtroom with people so they’ll know what path not to take.”

Debra Hendricks Gibbs, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge: From Statehouse to Courthouse
Judicial Career: Elected in 2022 to a four-year term.
Past Public Service: State representative for District 72, which includes parts of Hinds and Madison counties; Director of Accounting and Finance at the Mississippi Department of Human Services; Commissioner of Mississippi Workers Compensation Commission.
Education: Mississippi College of Law, JD, 1999

The newest of the four Hinds County Circuit Court judges, Debra Hendricks Gibbs served as a Democratic state representative for six years before being elected to the bench. In the Mississippi Statehouse, she served as vice chair of the House Tourism Committee and a member of the banking and financial services, ethics, education, judiciary and Medicaid committees.

“I honor the law, I have practiced the law, I have enacted the law, and now I am ready to interpret the law with fairness, impartiality, and with promptness. I will continue to serve with integrity and courage,” Gibbs said in a 2022 interview with Y’all Politics during her campaign for judge. The judge was unavailable to be interviewed by The Marshall Project - Jackson, according to her administrator.

Gibbs pursued an accounting career before entering politics. She taught accounting at Jackson State University and was the director of the university’s School of Business Center for Professional Development from 1984 to 1989, according to her LinkedIn account. From 1989 to 1993, Gibbs served as the director of accounting and finance at the Mississippi Department of Human Services. She later served as a commissioner at the Mississippi Workers Compensation Commission from 2010 to 2015.

Circuit Court Judge Debra Gibbs asks a question during a hearing in 2022, during her term as a state representative.

Circuit Court Judge Debra Gibbs asks a question during a hearing in 2022, during her term as a state representative.

Gibbs is a Gulfport native and hails from a politically active Hinds County family. Gibbs’ husband, Robert Gibbs, formerly held the judicial seat she now holds and her son, Justis Gibbs, currently holds her former seat in the Legislature.

In her first year as a judge, Gibbs has handled a combination of criminal and civil proceedings, including status hearings, pleas and trials. Before donning the black robe, Gibbs had a hand in shaping criminal law and the justice system in the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Gibbs served on Judiciary Committees A and B, which proposed changes to civil and criminal laws. She introduced bills to address high crime rates in Hinds County, including one to make illegal drag racing a felony, and to increase penalties for firing a gun in a residential area. Neither bill, however, became law.

She was also a co-sponsor of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which now limits the use of restraints on incarcerated women giving birth, provides access to feminine hygiene products and limits the distance that incarcerated women can be held away from their young children.

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge E. Faye Peterson Shows Defendant ‘Grace and Mercy’
Judicial Career: Elected in 2018; reelected in 2022.
Past Public Service: Public defender, assistant district attorney, Hinds County District Attorney and family master in Chancery Court.
Education: Mississippi College School of Law, JD, 1993

On a November day in her courtroom, Circuit Court Judge E. Faye Peterson heard a mix of guilty pleas and status updates, mostly for people who had been moved from the overcrowded Raymond Detention Center in Hinds County to a jail in Tallahatchie County, more than two hours north.

In one case, a 19-year-old man, who had been jailed for two years, stood before Peterson to plead guilty to a felony sexual battery charge.

He raised his right hand, still shackled to his left wrist, as he prepared to enter his plea.

A Black woman in a black judge's robe speaks on the bench in a courtroom.

Hinds County Circuit Judge E. Faye Peterson during a 2022 hearing.

A prosecutor read off the facts of the case. Shortly after turning 17, the defendant had gotten a 14-year-old girl pregnant. When he found out about the pregnancy, the defendant began working a job at Wendy’s to earn money to support his new family. Child Protective Services was alerted of the pregnancy. When asked whether he’d had sex with the girl, he said yes — they had sex in her mother’s house.

As the prosecutor finished reading, the courtroom fell silent. Peterson asked the attorneys to approach the bench.

“I have a concern,” the judge told the lawyers, adding that the case was “not truly sexual battery.”

The prosecutor then reduced the charge to a misdemeanor offense of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Peterson sentenced the defendant to one year, suspended, making him eligible for immediate release from jail.

As a judge, Peterson has the power to reject a plea or dismiss charges if they do not match up to the facts of the case. In this instance, she questioned the charge, which she said did not match the defendant’s actions, in a conversation with the prosecutor and public defender. This prompted the state’s change.

“You did two things right,” she addressed the 19-year-old, explaining why the court showed him “grace and mercy.”

“You admitted what you did at a young age, and you tried to get a job,” Peterson said.

She said in court that the case did not warrant a felony charge and that it isn’t the prosecutor’s job to be the moral or parental police.

In making such life-changing decisions, she calls on her years working multiple sides of the criminal justice system as a public defender, chief prosecutor and presiding over child support cases in Chancery Court. Those experiences, Peterson said in an interview with The Marshall Project - Jackson, showed her how to lead with humanity while balancing the facts of what they did and who had been harmed.

“I got to see both sides of the criminal process. And because I worked in legal services, I really had seen what poverty really looked like and people needing legal help,” Peterson said. “When I got to the DA’s office, I then got to see the faces of victims, who crime hurts and what it does to people.”

Before attending law school, Peterson studied physics and mathematics at Jackson State University and worked in engineering. She carried those experiences over to her legal career: she prides herself on being logical and efficient, using her math skills to evaluate and create new processes with the resources on hand.

Early in her career, she worked at the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, assisting low-income residents. She later worked as a public defender, before becoming an assistant district attorney and then the first Black woman district attorney in the state when she was appointed in 2001. She was subsequently elected to the office twice before losing a reelection bid in 2007. She then went into private practice, while also presiding over Chancery Court cases.

Peterson quickly lists the programs and processes she implemented at every stage of her career: from a fatherhood initiative during her time in Chancery Court that helped fathers find jobs and pay child support, to live-streaming current court proceedings. She said she is working to implement a mental health treatment court as an alternative to criminal court for people with mental health disorders.

“She’s an excellent judge… She’s one of the few judges that was actually a defense attorney and the DA, so she understands the issues and the work she’s doing,” District Attorney Jody E. Owens II said. “That, of course, is pretty critical.”

As a judge, Peterson hears civil and criminal cases, including the high-profile Department of Human Services lawsuit attempting to recover millions of misused federal welfare dollars for low-income Mississippians. The lawsuit comes in addition to criminal charges against former DHS chief John Davis, who was sentenced to 32 years in prison, and several others accused of funneling millions of federal welfare dollars to private projects.

Among the named defendants in the civil suit is retired NFL star Brett Favre, who received $1.1 million of those funds. Most recently, Peterson denied Favre’s request to be removed from the lawsuit.

Adrienne Wooten, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge: A Year of High-Profile Cases
Judicial Career: Elected in 2018; reelected in 2022 to a four-year term.
Past Public Service: State representative for District 71, including Jackson and Byram; Holmes County assistant public defender.
Education and Past Law Practice: University of Mississippi School of Law, JD, 1999; associate attorney with Blackmon & Blackmon law firm

Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten has presided over some of the most controversial trials in recent years in Hinds County.

In 2023, Wooten sentenced former Jackson Police Department officer Anthony Fox, who was convicted by a jury of culpable negligence manslaughter in the killing of George Robinson, to five years in prison — a 20-year sentence with 15 years suspended. The case drew significant attention, especially after Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch called on a state appeals court to overturn Fox’s conviction.

Wooten also sentenced former state Department of Human Services Director John Davis to 32 years in prison after he was convicted of five counts of conspiracy and 13 counts of fraud against the state government for his role in the welfare scandal that funneled more than $77 million in federal welfare funds away from the poor.

A Black woman with short hair with red bangs, wearing red framed glasses and a patterned scarf, speaks in front of a podium.

Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten in 2018, during her term as a Mississippi state representative.

Wooten also accepted a guilty plea for Anne McGrew, an accountant involved in the DHS scandal, on one count of conspiracy to commit embezzlement.

In 2024, Wooten is presiding over the case of Avery Willis, a former Jackson Police Department officer charged with second-degree murder in the in-custody death of Keith Murriel, who authorities said died after he was tased numerous times. Willis’ trial is set to start on March 11.

Another controversial decision came in 2020 when Wooten refused to revoke bond for T’Quarius Jones, who was accused of murder. While free on a $20,000 bond, Jones was wounded during a shootout, which prompted prosecutors to ask that his bond be revoked. Wooten, however, denied the request, stating that the rules of his release agreement had expired but she did order him to wear an ankle monitor. Wooten faced public scrutiny over the decision from District Attorney Jody E. Owens II, a Democrat, and then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, a Republican.

“The fact that he is alleged to have been in another shootout situation when his underlying crime was taking someone’s life is yet another example of why bond should have been revoked in this instance,” Owens told WLBT-TV after the hearing.

Within weeks, the U.S. Attorney’s office charged Jones with a federal receipt of a firearm by a person under felony indictment. Jones was convicted of murder in January 2024.

Wooten, in her second four-year term on the bench, was born in Riverside, California, and grew up in Meridian, Mississippi. She graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1999 and practiced both criminal and civil law. She worked as an associate attorney at Blackmon & Blackmon law firm before starting her own private practice. She also served as an assistant public defender in Holmes County, according to a legislative proclamation honoring her service.

Wooten took the bench in 2019 after serving 11 years as a state representative for South Jackson and parts of Byram. During her time in the state House of Representatives, Wooten served on multiple committees, including the Judiciary Committee, which enacted civil and criminal laws.

In a 2022 interview with the Jackson Advocate, she cited her role in two criminal justice reform bills passed in the Legislature. Wooten said she added an amendment to HB 585 that would allow formerly incarcerated people who could not afford their fines and fees to be sent to restitution centers to pay their debts, rather than back to prison. She also said she helped change a law that now allows people with addictions who have committed a violent crime 10 or more years before their arrest to participate in drug court.

Drug court allows defendants to avoid a trial if they successfully pass the court’s drug testing program and other requirements. Wooten was not available for an interview with The Marshall Project - Jackson.

Wooten ran a successful 2022 reelection campaign by emphasizing that she dispenses justice fairly, impartially and efficiently in her courtroom. She also advocated for establishing mental health treatment courts as an intervention measure, similar to the drug court run by Judge Winston Kidd.

In 2023, Hinds County received $300,000 from the state to establish a mental health treatment court.

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Daja E. Henry Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She will report on local criminal justice stories in Jackson, Mississippi, that go below the surface and examine persistent problems in policing, courts, local jails and state prisons, as well as the human impact of the criminal justice system. Henry joins The Marshall Project from The 19th, an independent, nonprofit news organization reporting on issues important to women, women of color and the LGBTQ+ community. She has covered police brutality, environmental justice communities throughout the South, and gun violence in her hometown of New Orleans. Henry holds a bachelor’s degree in media, journalism and film communications from Howard University, and a master’s degree in mass communications from Arizona State University.