Thursday, February 15, 2007
Defense seeks change of venue for Pruitt trial
By SUE WATSON
A motion to change venue for the trial of Michael Wallace Pruitt was heard last week in Marshall County Circuit Court with Judge Andrew Howorth presiding.
The motion to change venue was filed by Pruitt’s attorney John Dolan of Olive Branch.
Pruitt is charged with kidnapping and assault of a 6-year-old girl from the Laws Hill community in July 2006.
Dolan argued that extensive media coverage following the incident would make it impossible to impanel a fair and impartial jury for Pruitt’s trial in Marshall County. He said there was extensive coverage of the case in local papers and on television and that once a person has formed an opinion about a case it is hard for he or she to set the opinion aside.
Laying four different issues of The South Reporter that contained front-page pictures and stories about the investigation, charges, appearances and hearings or fund-raisers for the family of the victim, Dolan asked Eddie Dixon and several other prominent local elected officials if they believe his client could get a fair trial in Marshall County.
“Wouldn’t it be a fair statement this was the hottest news item in Marshall County in a long time?” Dolan asked the first state witness, Dixon, who is county supervisor, District 2.
“Yes. We had a few bank robberies. It was hot, but wasn’t that hot,” Dixon answered.
“Based on your conversations with people, do you believe he could get a fair trial?” Dolan asked Dixon.
Dixon said he did not believe most people had formed an assumption about the case, that people seemed more concerned about the welfare of the child (victim).
Chancery clerk Chuck Thomas testified as a state-called witness that he was aware of a lot of talk after the incident but not much talk recently.
“I believe we could get a fair jury,” he told assistant district attorney Lelani Hill during questioning. “Marshall County has a fair people.”
Dolan pointed out that there could have been over a dozen community benefits held for the victim’s family, including two he knew of in the Olive Branch area where he lives.
He asked similar questions to District 1 supervisor Willie Flemon, District 5 supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett and sheriff Kenny Dickerson, the remaining witnesses called by the state.
Dixon said he remembered more people expressing concern for the victim and talk about the fund-raisers, but no specific conversations he had or overheard after the incident.
In cross examination by district attorney Ben Creekmore, Dixon said he had not heard any conversations recently about the case and had heard no one discuss having formed an opinion regarding Pruitt’s possible guilt or innocence.
Thomas agreed with Dolan, that after a person forms an opinion, he believes it is hard to change the opinion.
“They continue to keep this case fresh as possible in the minds of the people,” Dolan said, showing Thomas a January 25, 2007, issue of The South Reporter containing a story about Sheriff Dickerson receiving the Leader of the Year award from the Byhalia Area Chamber of Commerce.
He also asked Thomas if the photographs published regarding the case help polarize people’s opinion.
“Honestly, I was more concerned for the child,” Thomas said. “To me, it didn’t affect me to see these pictures.
“You would agree people tend to become more familiar with a case when they are bombarded by media?” Dolan asked.
On cross examination, Hill stated the recent article Dolan referred to was more about the award and not directly about the case.
“Do you think if Marshall County were strongly polarized by this case, you would have heard about it (the polarization)?” Hill asked.
“Yes,” Thomas said.
Bennett testified he has not heard a lot of talk recently about the case or whether Pruitt could get a fair and impartial jury trial in the county.
“No, I do not think opinions have been formed,” Bennett said.
Dolan asked if Bennett thinks there was more media coverage in this case than others.
“No,” Bennett said, saying he can remember little detail of a murder case several years back.
“Are you aware my client has been housed in three separate jails or why that might have been necessary?” Dolan asked.
Dolan asked supervisor Flemon if the board of supervisors had to approve expenditures for inmate care for the sheriff’s department.
Flemon said he did not recollect any specific requests by the sheriff.
Hill called state witness Dickerson and asked if there had been extensive media coverage of the case.
“In all honesty, there has been a lot of coverage on this case,” Dickerson said.
Hill asked if he heard people express concerns.
Dickerson said he had heard concerns expressed along the lines of the welfare of the victim.
“I think there is a large jury pool in the county and I believe the possibility does exist the voir dire process could get a jury in Marshall County,” he said.
The state rested its case and Dolan called one witness for the defense, Sharon Campbell, Pruitt’s aunt and also a resident of the Laws Hill community where the incident took place.
She said in her opinion the legal system in Marshall County is not very fair.
“Have you been exposed to the print media?” Dolan asked.
Campbell noted that the only witnesses called except herself were politicians and that each expressed an opinion that her nephew could get a fair trial.
“There’s no way that my nephew can get a fair trial in this county, because that day (of the search for the missing child) everybody had already formed an opinion he (Pruitt) done this,” Campbell said.
Dolan asked if she had contact with people in recent times who expressed opinions.
“Harsh things,” Campbell said, “that he needs to be punished for it.”
Dolan asked if talk about the case had died down in Holly Springs or Red Banks.
“You talked about how you read about it (the case) on the Internet,” said Dolan.
He asked if Campbell believes a fair and impartial jury cannot be found to try the case in Marshall County.
“Yes, that’s correct,” she said.
On cross examination, Creekmore asked Campbell had she paid more attention to the case because of her close relationship to her nephew.
“I’ve had things thrown up in my face day in and day out about it,” she said. “Basically, you find out who your friends are and who is not.”
“So, if it’s in the newspaper?” Creekmore asked.
“Basically, I don’t get The South Reporter but my friends tell me about it,” she answered, saying she had read a few articles in the newspaper.
Campbell said some people approach her and ask how her nephew is doing.
“Some are concerned and some are basically against him,” she said.
“You were not asked questions about the (legal) system but you expressed an opinion,” Creekmore said. “You’re not afraid to express your opinion?”
“No, I’m not,” Campbell said. “There are reasons. Things have happened in our family in the past that formed that opinion.
“Until he’s been found actually guilty, I don’t say he’s guilty.”
In closing arguments for the state, Hill addressed concerns of media saturation in the case. She said she had found five articles in the Commercial Appeal, two in the Tupelo Daily Journal and none in the Clarion-Ledger.
“The South Reporter has had stories on fund-raisers and the sheriff’s award with the last substantive article in September,” Hill said. “The defense obviously has intensive interest in this case and she (Campbell), in fact, has said she’s not read many of these articles. The state asks to deny a change of venue.”
In closing arguments, Dolan said with the advent of the Internet the world seems smaller.
“Everyone in Marshall County has been exposed to this case,” he said. “The question is whether a fair and impartial jury can be impanelled in Marshall County.”
He referred to the numerous fund-raisers for the victim’s family.
“Nobody pitched in to help my client,” he said. “Only two people have visited my client in jail since his incarceration. To set aside a formed opinion is very, very difficult for a community to do.”
Dolan said the case is a very serious one due to “egregious facts of the case.”
“We think in this particular community, it is going to be very difficult to impanel a fair and impartial jury,” he said.
Judge Howorth noted he subscribes to numerous newspapers in the area as well as regional ones, and said he wants time to reflect before making a decision on the motion.
He said his comments were to “give lawyers an opportunity to make sure the judge is fairly considering the evidence.”
After discussions with defense and prosecuting attorneys and the judge, the trial date was set for April 9, with motions scheduled for March 23, according to Hill.
Dickerson said Monday he believes if a large Marshall County jury pool was convened and the proper inquires made of the pool by the court, the state and the defense, then and only then would there be an honest assessment of how potential jurors feel concerning whether the defendant could get a fair trial in Marshall County.
“The decision to do this is controlled by the court, and, whatever the decision is, I will respect it,” he said.
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