By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Murder defendant Thomas Ward must wait for his jury’s selection to begin later this month to know if the trial will be by fellow Lee Countians.
Circuit Judge James L. Roberts Jr. ruled Thursday, after a nearly day-long hearing, that the trial will begin in Tupelo with a Lee County jury pool.
But, he said, if it appears that Ward cannot get a fair trial – that is, be judged by fair-minded jurors – he will consider changes.
Ward, 24, is accused in the 2010 shooting death of Anna Catherine McCoy in Ward’s Saltillo home.
A Lee County grand jury indicted him on a charge of depraved heart murder, which is a murder charge compounded by such a callous disregard for safety that someone dies.
Ward said he is not guilty.
He asked for a change of venue, or trial location, alleging that extensive pretrial publicity hurt his chances for an impartial jury.
Thursday, Ward’s defense counsel, Victor Fleitas of Tupelo, presented a string of witnesses to say they believed Ward could not get a fair trial. Several also said that they believed many members of the community held ill will and malice toward Ward for McCoy’s death.
“If you look at all of this, it argues for a change of venue, for no other reason than to make sure we get it right,” Fleitas said to Roberts in summation.
District Attorney John Young insisted otherwise, along with Assistant District Attorney David Daniels.
Daniels said the media attention is not unusual or sensational.
“Some public interest in a case like this is expected, and the media are expected to report on it,” he said. “Public interest is not public ill will or pre-judgment.”
Several elected officials, including the coroner, two supervisors and Sheriff Jim Johnson, testified that they had heard very little public discussion about the case since soon after McCoy’s death in the spring of 2010.
Lloyd Gray, executive editor of the Daily Journal, was the day’s final witness. He testified about the newspaper and its website’s coverage of the case and its readership reach.
Answering a question from Young, Gray said other than dinnertime or after-church conversations soon after McCoy’s death, he’s heard few, if any, discussions about Ward or the case coming to trial.