When Brandon Lancaster was released from the Leflore County Jail after charges against him related to a 2018 bank robbery were dismissed, the first thing he did was walk 3 miles to the Commonwealth’s office to tell his story.
Broke and not knowing where he would stay that night, the 29-year-old who says he suffers from mental illness as a result of his 15-month incarceration had one thing on his mind.
“I just want justice,” he said.
Lancaster was released from the jail Nov. 1. Inside a white drawstring mesh bag were crammed all of his possessions — a few toiletries, some clothes, books, letters and legal documents to support his claim that he is innocent of the crime for which he was being held.
Earlier that week, Leflore County Judge Kevin Adams ordered that the two charges related to the June 20, 2018, robber of the downtown Greenwood branch of Planters Bank be dismissed because of the failure of the FBI to push the case.
According to Lancaster’s court-appointed attorney, Wallie Stuckey, a grand jury had convened three times in Leflore County since Lancaster’s arrest, but the case had not been presented to any of them.
Stuckey argued, and the judge agreed, that the lengthy incarceration without any action by prosecutors violated Lancaster’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Stuckey said, however, that the FBI could still seek an indictment against Lancaster from a federal grand jury. The FBI takes the lead on bank robberies, which are a federal offense.
The FBI declined this week in an email to confirm or deny if it was conducting an investigation.
Meanwhile, a charge of commercial burglary for a break-in at the Regency Inn 10 days before the bank robbery remains active against Lancaster. He was released on a reduced bail of $2,500 on that charge.
Initially, the FBI told the District Attorney’s Office that federal authorities would be prosecuting both crimes. In May of this year, according to the court order, the FBI informed the district attorney that it had changed plans and would not be prosecuting the burglary at the Regency Inn, from which an undisclosed amount of cash was taken.
On Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Tim Jones told the Commonwealth that he would be presenting the Regency Inn burglary to a grand jury later this year for a possible indictment.
Meanwhile, Lancaster is proclaiming his innocence, saying he was incorrectly identified by Greenwood police as the perpetrator in both crimes after they viewed surveillance footage from the Regency Inn and the Cotton Row Club, a private drinking establishment located on Ramcat Alley in downtown Greenwood.
According to the transcript of a preliminary hearing held in July 2018, Planters Bank tellers told police that a masked man entered the branch shortly before noon on the day of the robbery, carrying a small gun and demanding money. The bank reported to authorities that $14,510.95 was stolen.
One of the tellers sneaked in with the cash a dye pack, which apparently later exploded in the nearby Ramcat Alley. Police recovered $1,877 in ink-stained currency at the scene and later a few blocks away an ink-stained white T-shirt and the bag believed to have been used to carry the money.
Surveillance video from Planters Bank showed the robber with a white T-shirt covering his face, and footage from the Cotton Row Club soon after captured presumably the same subject pulling off a white T-shirt stained with dye.
Lancaster, who has two prior felony convictions, including one for burglary of a business, was identified as the suspect by Sgt. Edgar Gibson of the Police Department in the video taken at the Cotton Row Club as well as in the footage from the Regency Inn robbery, according to the transcript.
Police arrested Lancaster on the morning after the bank robbery and charged him with armed robbery and felon in possession of a firearm for the Planters Bank holdup and commercial burglary for the motel theft.
No dye was found on Lancaster’s skin, no weapon was recovered, nor any more of the money stolen from the bank, authorities said.
A friend of Lancaster’s, Melvin Chappel Jr., was charged with being an accessory after the fact for paying to rent a room for Lancaster at the Travel Inn following the bank robbery.
Adams, the Leflore County judge, dismissed the charge against Chappel at the July 2018 preliminary hearing, saying there was insufficient evidence that Chappel was aware of Lancaster’s alleged crime at the time of the transaction.
Lancaster, during his interview Friday at the Commonwealth, claimed that the reason officers pressed charges against him was that he “had personal relationships with these officers” from previous run-ins.
He had previously written letters to the newspaper and placed calls from the jail to its newsroom professing his innocence.
He said he has little family in the area. The Greenwood grandmother who raised him is in a nursing home, and his mother still lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where Lancaster spent the first four years of his life.
He said that while he was in jail, his attorney, Wallie Stuckey, brought him two plea deals, both of which Lancaster rejected. “‘I’m not guilty. I’m not taking that plea,’” Lancaster said he told Stuckey, insisting instead that the attorney file a motion to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial.
The attorney declined to comment on any plea negotiations that might have been attempted.
Lancaster said he has been wronged by the police.
“I feel that they defiled my character. Everybody looks at me right now as if I robbed the bank,” he said.
He said that he walks in fear of being attacked by people who may believe he is carrying stolen bank money.
Lancaster said that he has dealt with anxiety attacks, depression and problems sleeping “because of these charges” and has since been put on medication.
He said he’s also had his $750 monthly disability checks cut off.
He said that the criminal justice system is skewed to pressure those wrongfully accused of crimes to plead guilty.
“They can paint a picture of me being a criminal by my past convictions, and a jury will go with that,” he said. “So that’s why folks on the back road take a plea.”