|By Billy Davis
A Panola County circuit jury agreed Thursday that dormitory receptionist Demetrius Smith raped and kidnapped Ole Miss student Carnesha Nelson, later drowning her in the waters of Sardis Lake.
The jury verdict came after four and a half days of testimony in which witnesses for the prosecution described a gruesome death at the hands of Smith, beginning with his kidnapping of Nelson at her Oxford apartment.
Smith, 27, is from Lambert and served in the U.S. Navy.
Nelson was from Moss Point. She would have turned 20 on May 27, 2004, the day two fishermen found her body near Engineer’s Point, her hands bound with a cell phone cord.
Smith and Nelson knew each other through Smith’s job as a desk receptionist at Crosby Hall, a women’s dormitory on the Ole Miss campus.
The jury of 10 women and two men began deliberating at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and announced its verdict at about 3:40 p.m.
The state charged Smith with capital murder, contending that he committed the crime of murder while engaged in an act of kidnapping.
The state did not seek the death penalty against Smith, but he could receive a life term in prison without parole for the crime.
Circuit Judge Ann Lamar presided over the trial.
State forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne testified that Nelson died of a freshwater drowning, telling jurors the marks on the back of her neck suggested she was forced under the water.
Jurors also learned of Nelson’s ransacked apartment bedroom, watching a video tape that showed ripped window blinds, a twisted window screen and pieces of duct tape that were stuck to the bedding.
Panola County investigator Mark Whitten described the remainder of Nelson’s one-bedroom apartment as "immaculate," later holding up the twisted window frame to symbolize the fight that took place there.
The screen was found across the room when Whitten, Lt. Allen Thompson of the Miss. Bureau of Investigations and David Bryan, the late Panola County sheriff, entered the apartment on May 27.
Prior to this week’s trial, the state shipped the window screen and the entire window frame to an FBI lab in Virginia. An FBI expert testified on Wednesday that the screen had been removed by someone pushing it from the inside of the bedroom.
"I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that Carnesha wanted out of that bedroom," District Attorney John Champion told jurors in his closing arguments.
DNA evidence from the bed was matched with Smith, and a fingerprint lifted from the tape and examined by an FBI forensic expert matched the defendant as well.
Smith testified Wednesday on his own behalf, the last of four defense witnesses put on the stand by public defender Clay Vanderburg.
In questioning from Vanderburg, Smith said he went to Nelson’s apartment on May 25 and had sex with her, waving goodbye as he left and she talked on her cell phone.
In cross examination by Champion, however, Smith said he "had a plan" to have sex with Nelson, boasting later that he is good at charming women.
"I’ve never had no problem with having sex with women," Smith told Champion.
"So you’re some kind of stud?" Champion asked.
The defendant grinned back, sitting up straighter in the witness chair after Champion made the suggestion.
Other witnesses for the defense included Smith’s relatives and a girlfriend. They were put on the witness stand to provide an alibi but gave conflicting testimony.
In his closing arguments, Champion summarized the state’s case against Smith: he raped Nelson and then had to kill her to keep her quiet about the violent assault.
Smith gained entry into Nelson’s apartment, perhaps telling her he wanted to talk, Champion said, and then he raped her in her bedroom.
Now facing a rape charge, Champion said, Smith took the student from her apartment at knifepoint, driving her to Sardis Lake in her white SUV with her hands bound with her own phone cord. He then drowned her near the beach.
The state’s circumstantial evidence in the case included a knife found in Smith’s car, white sand found in the floorboard of Nelson’s SUV, a CD case that was removed from Nelson’s vehicle to Smith’s vehicle, Smith’s fingerprint on the tape and his DNA that was found in the bed.