BY LETITIA STEIN AND COLLEEN JENKINS
(Reuters) - A prominent lawyer and leader of the Mississippi Tea Party, who was arrested in connection with photos posted online of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran's bedridden wife, died on Friday of an apparent suicide, the man's attorney said.
Mark Mayfield, 58, was a founding member of the state's Tea Party and had served as its vice chairman, the organization said.
"This is a terrible tragedy that shouldn't have happened," Mayfield's lawyer and brother-in-law, John Reeves, told Reuters.
Mayfield was one of three men accused in May of conspiring with a blogger to illicitly take photos of Cochran's wife, who has dementia, in her nursing home for use in a political video against the six-term incumbent.
Mayfield was charged with conspiracy to photograph someone without permission, an allegation met with shock and some skepticism in the legal community where he was highly regarded.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant was among those who expressed sadness on Friday, calling Mayfield a long-time friend.
"A good number of us just simply refused to believe that he had anything to do, at least on any criminal level, with what happened with the nursing home scandal," said attorney Matt Eichelberger, who blogs about progressive politics in the state.
Mayfield's death comes after state Senator Chris McDaniel, who had the backing of conservative Tea Party groups, lost a bitterly contested primary runoff against Cochran on Tuesday for the Republican Senate nomination.
McDaniel, who has denied any connection to the photo conspiracy, has accused Cochran's camp of slandering him by insinuating his involvement.
Mayfield, a lifelong resident of Mississippi who practiced real estate law, bowed out of politics after his arrest, said Merrida Coxwell, another attorney who represented him.
Coxwell said he last spoke with Mayfield on Wednesday, when they discussed the criminal case but not the results of Tuesday's election. He said he had urged Mayfield to be patient.
"I don't know what was on his mind," Coxwell said. "I guess just being charged, for a man of Mark's kind sensibilities, was too much."