Court won't revive lawsuit that says Mississippi officials fueled lawyer's death during Senate race

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal appeals court says it will not revive a lawsuit by the family of a Mississippi lawyer who took his own life after he was arrested and accused of providing information to people who snuck into a nursing home and photographed the ailing wife of a U.S. senator during a contentious election.

Images of Rose Cochran appeared briefly online during the 2014 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, in a video that accused now-deceased Sen. Thad Cochran of having an affair while his wife was bedridden with dementia — an accusation that Thad Cochran denied.

The primary exacerbated rifts between establishment Republicans who supported Cochran and tea party activists, including lawyer Mark Mayfield, who backed Cochran's GOP primary challenger, state lawmaker Chris McDaniel.

In 2017, Mayfield’s survivors sued Madison Mayor Hawkins-Butler and others, saying the defendants were part of a network of Cochran supporters who pushed Mayfield to suicide in June 2014. Mayfield died by gunfire, and police said he left a suicide note, days after Cochran defeated McDaniel in a primary runoff and before the felony charge against Mayfield could be prosecuted.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves dismissed the lawsuit in 2021. He wrote that Mayfield's relatives did not prove the city of Madison improperly retaliated against Mayfield for constitutionally protected speech or political activity.

A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Reeves' ruling July 27. In a split decision Wednesday, the full appeals court said it would not reconsider the Mayfield family's appeal.

One of the appellate judges, James C. Ho, wrote that the family's lawsuit should have gone to trial, and that this ruling and others by the 5th Circuit could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.

“There’s not much left to freedom of speech if you have to worry about being jailed for disagreeing with public officials," Ho wrote in Wednesday's ruling.

In 2021, Reeves wrote that despite sworn statements from former Madison County Assistant District Attorney Dow Yoder that “this case was handled unlike any other case that ever came through the DA’s office,” there was “no evidence” that Mayfield was investigated or arrested because of constitutionally protected speech or political activity.

Mayfield's mother lived in the same nursing home as Rose Cochran in Madison, a Jackson suburb. Mayfield was charged with conspiracy to exploit a vulnerable adult, after Madison authorities accused him of giving information to other McDaniel supporters who entered the facility without permission and photographed the senator's wife. McDaniel condemned the operation and said it was not authorized by his campaign.

If Mayfield had been convicted of the felony, he would have faced up five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and he could have lost his law license.

“Perhaps he shouldn’t have provided the information he was asked,” Ho wrote. “But did he deserve to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned? Did he deserve to be humiliated, even driven to suicide — and his family destroyed? It’s unfathomable that law enforcement officials would’ve devoted scarce police resources to pursuing Mayfield, but for one thing: The people in power disliked his political views.”

Two other people who supported McDaniel in 2014, John Mary and Clayton Kelly, each pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

Cochran’s campaign said in 2014 that he wasn’t involved in an improper relationship. He was re-elected that November, and Rose Cochran died the following month. The senator married a longtime aide in May 2015.

Cochran served six years in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1978, and he rose to the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. He retired in frail health in 2018 and died in 2019 at age 81.