He Was Granted Parole After 31 Years. A Newspaper Ad Is Keeping Him in Prison.

Frederick Bell was meant to get out of a Mississippi prison this week, but a little-known technicality is blocking his parole.
Hiob/Getty Images

Frederick Bell has spent the past 31 years in prison for two murders he committed when he was 19. But despite being granted parole, he can’t be released just yet because of a little-known Mississippi technicality. 

Bell was supposed to be granted his freedom on Sept. 26. But thanks to an obscure law requiring notice of his release to be published in the local newspaper, his release was delayed indefinitely at the last possible moment. Now, local politicians and the family of one of Bell’s victims are hoping the delay will give the parole board a chance to reconsider its decision. 

Bell was sentenced to death in 1993, and his case marks one of the rare times the state recognized an inmate’s rehabilitation. In 2013, Mississippi’s Supreme Court ruled that he was mentally disabled and should be resentenced to life without parole. Two years later, he was determined to be eligible for parole. Then, this August, the state ruled in his favor once more.

“In our opinion, Bell has been rehabilitated, and at this point, we feel that parole supervision will be more beneficial than further incarceration,” the state’s parole board Chair Jeffery Belk wrote in a letter about Bell’s release on Aug. 25.

But without that notice in the paper, Bell is still in prison.

“Over the weekend, we confirmed that the notice was not run in the local paper where the murder occurred, as required,” Mississippi state Sen. Angela Hill said on a local Super Talk FM radio show, “The Gallo Show.” “We contacted the Attorney General’s Office, and the Attorney General’s Office indicated to us that she had contacted the parole board and that he would not be released unless or until the proper notification to the community was run in the local paper.” The rule is meant to give the community a chance to give their input about the board’s decision, according to Hill.

In Bell’s case, that community would be Grenada County, some 50 miles south of Oxford, and the publication would be the Grenada Star. Because the parole board did not run a notice in that local paper, Bell, whose release was originally set for Sept. 26, must remain in prison until these state requirements are met.

Star publisher Adam Prestridge told VICE News that a request to print a notice of release like this one is “a rare occurrence.”

“I’ve been in the business for 25 years and I don’t recall ever receiving a request like this, but I do know that they are required,” Prestridge said Wednesday.

On May 6, 1991, Bell, then 19 years old, was one of two men involved in two fatal robberies across two states, according to court documents. The first occurred at a local convenience store, Sparks Stop-and-Go, in Grenada County. After visiting the location with three friends, Bell, armed with a .22-caliber pistol, and one of the others, Anthony Doss, decided that they would rob the store. The other two men who decided against committing the crime, Robert James and Frank Coffey, testified that they heard screaming and gunshots from the store before seeing Bell and his associate return from inside.

Bell shot the cashier, 21-year-old store manager Bert Bell (no relation) nine times before fleeing with a .38-caliber pistol, a box of bullets, and a bag of money. After the robbery, a tense back-and-forth took place between Frederick Bell and James, during which Bell allegedly threatened to kill James because he didn’t want any witnesses. It was during this back and forth that Frederick Bell admitted to firing the shot that killed Bert Bell, according to court documents.

After Coffey and Doss intervened in the argument, the two joined Bell and a new participant, Bernard Gladney, who drove them to Memphis, Tennessee. Here, Bell committed another gunpoint robbery, resulting in the death of another cashier, 20-year-old Tommy White.

Coffey, Doss, Gladney, and Bell were eventually arrested at a Memphis residence. In 1993, Bell was found guilty of capital murder in the killing of Bert Bell. He also pleaded guilty to the Memphis shooting, along with Coffey.

Some 29 years later, after decades of appeals and evaluation, the Mississippi parole board ruled that Bell would be better served living the rest of his life out of prison and under parole supervision. The decision has upset the family of Bert Bell, who are furious that their loved one’s murderer will likely be a free man in the coming months.

“On August 29, I received the gut-wrenching letter from the parole board that tells me that they have decided to grant this offender parole,” Bert’s brother, Gene Bell, told Super Talk FM last week. “My brother was never able to receive an appeal. He was never able to appeal his life the nine times he was shot.”

The family is joined by the likes of Mississippi’s state secretary, state representatives, and local law enforcement in calling for the board of parole to reconsider. With Bell’s release being held up until further notice because the required notice has not yet been filed to the Star, this could be their last chance to keep Bell in prison.

Prestridge told VICE News that members of Bert Bell’s family contacted him about whether the paper had received the notice about Bell’s parole, which it had not. As of Wednesday, Prestridge said the Star’s classifieds, legal department, and bookkeepers still had not received anything from the parole board.

“If we receive something by our deadline of 5 p.m. on Thursday, it would run the next immediate Wednesday, as we are a weekly publication. It would run for two consecutive weeks, 30 days prior to his release.”

If the notice is submitted this week, Bell will likely not be released for another six weeks. Those who oppose his release hope that publishing the community notice will give Grenada County residents a chance to join their cause.

“Clearly, the rules and regulations for the parole board speak to community input,” Hill said during her interview Monday. “I feel like they need to go back and revisit their decision once they get community input because the community is not for the release of this murderer.”

The Mississippi State parole board did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment on whether it is considering a reversal of its decision.

Bell’s release comes just over a year after Mississippi’s efforts to grant parole to more people. Under Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act, those who commit violent acts would need to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence or 20 years (whichever is shorter) before they are considered for release. While capital offenses wouldn’t fall under this category, Bell’s resentencing made him eligible for release.

Despite an initial spike in the number of parole hearings last year, the law hasn’t resulted in steady consideration for those still in prison, according to Mississippi Today. Between November 2021 and July 2022, the parole grant rate dropped from 93 percent to 40 percent, according to the outlet.

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.