Prosecutor, defense attorney say murder publicity tainted jury pool
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 2:19 pm
DIXON, Mo. (May 19, 2010) — Citing pretrial publicity in both the Waynesville Daily Guide and Pulaski County Daily News, Associate Circuit Judge John Wiggins agreed Wednesday morning to move Ashley N. Gilbert’s murder case to Phelps County.
Gilbert, 18, of Dixon, has pleaded innocent to a Class A felony charge of second-degree murder and is accused of kicking and beating a Dixon man to death last year along with her ex-boyfriend, Robert Fortner, 31, also of Dixon, who until he entered a plea agreement on Monday was a co-defendant facing the same charges. Both are accused of killing David A. Blankenship on May 10 of last year and causing his death by repeatedly striking him with their hands and feet.
Gilbert’s lawyer, John Beger, thanked Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Hooper for calling his attention to the news coverage and held up copies of a front page article in the Waynesville Daily Guide and printed copies of the Pulaski County Daily News article. However, Hooper explained to the judge that she didn’t believe the pretrial coverage was her fault.
“I had nothing to do with talking to the reporters at all,” Hooper said. “Both of these sites are well-read and unfortunately, because of the type of comments that have been made, it would taint the jury.”
While defendants in Missouri’s smaller counties have an automatic right by law to have their cases heard by a jury from a different county because defendants are more likely to be known by the potential jurors, Beger wanted the judge to rule that the change was for cause based on the pretrial publicity rather than a matter of legal right and cited items from both news articles.
“My argument would be that any time you have mention of a plea agreement, it gives the impression something has been done that is wrong,” Beger said, holding up the front page of the Waynesville Daily Guide. “Furthermore, there was an article in an online news source, the Pulaski County Daily, that references a confession.”
“We feel the jury pool in Pulaski County has been tainted and prejudiced (Gilbert’s) opportunity to have a fair trial,” Beger said.
Wiggins said he wasn’t sure he agreed, but granted the motion.
“I don’t necessarily believe the whole jury panel would be tainted by the publication of a newspaper or even an online article, but if both of the parties are in agreement with a change of venue to Phelps County, that is fine with me,” Wiggins said.
Beger said he also needed more time to review an audio CD submitted with statements made Monday by Fortner, who until Monday faced Class A felony penalties of either 10 to 30 years or life in prison, depending on circumstances.
It’s not yet clear what plea agreement Fortner has made in return for his testimony in the case against Gilbert, but whatever he told investigators runs 2 hours, 17 minutes, and 30 seconds, according to the judge.
Beger told the judge that he had expected a transcript from Hooper, not a CD.
Hooper said her staff is backed up with extra work and hasn’t yet had time to produce the transcript.
“We will produce a transcript as soon as it is done,” Hooper said.
Due to various court scheduling conflicts, neither Hooper, Beger, nor Wiggins will be available next week; Wiggins said he believes moving the case to Phelps County will cause a delay of at least two weeks in a case that had been scheduled to begin on Monday of this week.
While Gilbert sat silently in handcuffs and leg shackles during most of the proceedings, she spoke in response to Wiggins’ questions about whether she understood that the motion by her lawyer would delay her case.
“You understand that these motions are to protect your right to a fair trial?” Wiggins asked.
“Yeah, he (my lawyer) discussed that with me,” Gilbert said.
Circuit Clerk Rachelle Beasley said Wednesday that she’s in the process of sending the case files to Phelps County and won’t know the new date for Gilbert’s murder case until the Phelps County circuit clerk and affected judges have the opportunity to check their schedules.