By Patsy R. Brumfield / Daily Journal
TUPELO – Counsel Victor Fleitas says evidence supports change of venue in this case.
We have a well respected family, the tragic death of a beautiful young woman, a serious crime which carries very serious consequences for Mr. Ward. When you take the evidence through the motion and consider the testimony from the witnesses today, I believe the state has not met its burden to rebut the presumption for a change of venue – burden is on the state.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees Mr. Ward to a fair, unbiased jury free from influence, media or otherwise. Back in the days when you could judge interest in a case from the coffee shop or courtroom, witnesses have testified about ill will, malice and hatred toward Mr. Ward. Then, when you multiply it and put it into the environment of technology, you multiply it out, it’s poison in the system there is no way to accurately gauge or tell how it has filtered out through all its innumerable branches.
You can put the lid on it once it’s out. The State of Mississippi has approximately 2.6 million citizens, the county has 75,000. Somebody else can and in all fairness and justice should hear this case. It asks a lot to say I’m going to sit in judgment of a matter involving a favored son or favored daughter. I think in this case, based on my review of the law, that the state has not met its burden.
DANIELS – In summation, four witnesses by state testified at length that they felt the defendant could receive a fair trial by a jury drawn from their fellow citizens. Two of the defense’s own witnesses said the same. When the defense talked about ill will and hatred, the only person who says it exists is Mr. Fleitas.
He called a couple of young men who were very close to this young woman. And they admitted their anger about this. They never used the word hatred or ill will. They are not going to be jurors. They are not indicative of Lee County at large. They are people who have suffered the loss.
I don’t know where the alleged overall ill will is coming from. We have heard from one witness who works at Johnnie’s who knows Cotton McCoy. She felt uncomfortable that she might be called as juror. She said on a May jury venire, that some others who knew Cotton McCoy felt like they didn’t want to try the case. It’s not ill will. It’s just expressing apprehension with being on a jury that would try this case.
The state has rebutted the presumption in this case, that the defendant can’t get a fair trial in Lee County. There has been a well thought-of family, but it does not rise to the level of an influential family, that he could not get a fair trial. I don’t think that’s the claim.
The claim is to create a presumption he can’t get a fair trial and that we have not rebutted it. Only talked about number of articles. No content discussed. They are very innocuous. Don’t talk about whether he’s guilty. Case has not been sensationalized, not prejudicial, not has it been characterized as media saturation.
Some public interest in a case like this is expected, and media are expected to report. Public interest is not public ill well or pre-judgment. State objects to change of venue, tried by Lee County citizens. State request court deny the motion or in the alternative to reserve judgment until voir dire, at trial, at which time court will allow Mr. Fleitas to renew his motion.
FLEITAS – 3:12 – To judge this from a human perspective … this case is referred to as The McCoy Shooting. McCoy is daughter of retired police officer. Articles do include information provided by authorities. Numerous articles say she was a wonderful girl. No one suggests the Daily Journal has a vendetta. Suggest only that what happens in the minds of others cannot be known. Two young men talked about interest in this and that they created a virtual community about this case.
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. The state has not met its burden. I have not been talking about ill will or pre-judgment. It came from the witnesses. Do we have to wait until something bad happens? This is a preview of coming attractions, what will be going on in future venire. McKinney’s testimony was a preview.
Argue that credibility of witnesses for Ward is greater than others. Matter should be changed to another venue now, rather than later. Coverage will continue and this will only continue to ratchet up. That scares me. I don’t think we need to get to that point.
JUDGE – The matter before the court is Ward’s motion for change of venue. AS court stated earlier today, the defendant met the presumption by filing the application for change with two affidavits. Burden shifted to the state to rebut the presumption.
As court has stated, this case, like all cases is extremely important and the court understands that. Witnesses offered by the state all four are public officials. One first time, two in second term, another in third term. Might say, expect them to say anyone could get a fair trial. I have faith and confidence that they will testify to what they believe to be the absolute truth. They all said they had heard and not paid much attention to any coverage. Had heard a little talking but believe defendant can receive a fair trial in Lee County.
The defendant’s additional witnesses – Ms. Faye, a waitress, testified to an unfortunate incident in that restaurant. Happened in an isolated situation. Ms. Massey, Sheffield, Hill all testified as credibly as they could to their beliefs. In certain locations where might hear certain discussions or talk. It would please each side if I did certain things. State, to deny motion. Defense, to grant motion.
I’m not going to philosophize too long. At the age I have been fortunate to reach, with more than 40 years in the legal system, pleased we live in a country which affords everyone the right to a fair trial. I don’t think either side disagrees. The interpretation is where the breakdown occurs about what is a fair trial.
Fleitas, I would not expect defendant to agree … but I believe the state has effectively rebutted the presumption. It’s not an irrebuttalable presumption. Such factors as Cotton McCoy well known. Could be said about many families. The young victim left a tragic loss and we all understand that. Even so, with all those factors, we have not yet exhausted in my opinion the possibility of a fair trial in Lee County. Much of that is a matter of intepretation.
Most of us, as lawyers and as citizens, get up every morning and read the newspaper. Search for that print newspaper. Don’t pay much attention to any social networks, but dear friends with some folks who do. Many of us read the newspaper, others don’t. I’ve heard people say when they quit, they said they lived a far better life. Always a bit surprising to meet somebody who doesn’t care what’s in the news media.
I don’t know what these percentages are, can’t begin to guess. Per FAcebook, many of the hits may be from young people, students, many who aren’t residents of this county. I understand, in theory, that it could constitute a serious problem. I’m not deciding this case today.
I tend to believe state has rebutted. But will carry this over. Trial set Aug. 29. I assure you, as Daniels said, I believe in affording as wide a latitude as possible on voir dire. Only way to decide this problem is to reserve a ruling until voir dire. I realize that may not please either side. In effect, I’m denying motion. But if we’re unable to select a jury, we’ll take another look at it.
Lee is a large county. I tend to believe jurors answer well when they are asked the right questions. As good as you lawyers are, I would hate to be facing either side in an adversarial role. I know you’ll perform in voir dire.
Better to air on the side of caution, on my part. I will wait and make a final ruling if and when it’s needed at voir dire.
(Asks state to prepare a short order on what we’ve done today? Fleitas says yes.)
3:27 – This matter is concluded for today.
• • •
TUPELO – Editor Lloyd Gray testifies about Daily Journal coverage and circulation area as both sides wrap up arguments in a change of venue hearing for murder defendant Thomas J. Ward.
Ward, 24, maintains he is innocent of accusations that he fatally shot Anna Catherine McCoy at his Saltillo home. He is accused of her 2010 depraved heart murder. His trial is set for Aug. 29 before Judge James L. Roberts Jr. in the circuit court of Lee County.
At issue today is whether Ward can get a fair trial in Lee County. His counsel, Victor Fleitas, claims pre-trial publicity has prejudiced the jury pool.
Prosecutors today are District Attorney John Young and Assistant DA David Daniels.
A variety of witnesses have appeared during the hearing, which began about 9:30 a.m. (This rolling account below picks up, in reverse, with each witness.)
• • •
2:15 – Judge enters
2:18 – Judge instructs the bailiff to tell prosecutors to return to the courtroom.
FLEITAS – Calls Lloyd Gray, executive editor of the Northeast Miss. Daily Journal.
2:21 – Gray says he’s lived in Lee 19 years. Prepared information about newspaper’s circulation and geographic reach. Truthful and correct.
Fleitas asks Gray’s letter to be admitted into evidence. YOUNG – no objection.
GRAY – Explains newspapers which Journal Publishing produces. Daily Journal has paid circulation of about 33,600 weekdays, 35,000 Sundays. Subscribers and single-copy sales. Geographically circulates in 17 counties in NE Miss. Includes Lee County, where principal offices are located. Online presence at NEMS360.com, a regional news site with content from daily newspapers, etc. Individual web sites for weekly newspapers.
Says he found minimum of nine articles written about case over the past year. Could have missed some articles. Says Daily Journal will continue to cover this story. Is being covered now. Covered on a live basis? That’s right. (Actually, this account is not live but is posted periodically during natural breaks in the court action. In doing so, it only appears to be posted live.)
Fleitas brings laptop to Gray, who identifies NEMS360.com coverage being posted during the hearing. Asks him about advent of electronic communications. Gray says it’s different from traditional print medium. Says since blogging began on this story, Gray says the story has had 2,800 views since this morning. Does not reflect individual viewers. Reflects a fairly high degree in what Patsy Brumfield has to write about it. It’s a legitimate exercise for public to view what’s occurring at hearing.
Fleitas – other documents. Collection of newspaper articles and prints of articles. Asks Gray to look through them to determine if they are Daily Journal stories. Gray says not all of these are. Fleitas asks him to remove those that aren’t. Stories published in Daily Journal or on NEMS360.com, or both, Gray says.
FLEITAS – asks judge to admit articles as representative of newspaper coverage of this case. Young – no objections.
Asks Gray – NEMS360 posts articles, also allows public comment?
Gray, yes. Fleitas asks if you have some way to gauge comments as level of public interest? Gray says no, may just be back and forth between a few people. But it is a gauge of interest with views.
Fleitas asks if advertisers are charged by number of page views? Gray, no. The visits are important to advertisers generally but we don’t charge according to views. Fleitas asks if this story has a high degree of public interest? Gray says yes.
Gray, it’s not uncommon for us to live-blog events, like court cases. Based on public interest. Connection between coverage and public interest. Says in our own judgment, as well as public interest, determine what we cover. Not informed about TV coverage. Does not monitor TV news. They’re good folks, our competitors.
Fleitas – 2,800 hits a lot? Gray, says yes. High traffic while people are at work.
YOUNG – 2:43 – 2,700 views – is that hits on just that story or on the whole paper. Gray says that’s only one that one story. Not individual people, could be same people multiple times. Asks about whether he knows of any ill will toward Ward in those articles? Gray, not that I know of. Asks whether Daily Journal has pre-judge this case? Gray, that’s not our intent. Young says, these articles reflect what you have knowledge of? Gray, correct.
Asks if any attempt by the paper to cause pre-judgment or ill will against the defendant in this case? Gray – no sir.
Journal usually prints something about every murder case or pre-trial hearings? Gray -yes.
Is it unusual for there to have been nine articles in the Daily Journal on this case, which started almost a year and a half ago? Gray – for a murder case, that’s pretty standard. This is not any greater than a case like this would ordinarily be.
Young – has anybody ever attempted to state to the public anything about the investigation of this case, other than what’s already publicly known? Gray – haven’t reviewed every article, what we present generally is what the authorities tell us. We follow that through the court system. Rely heavily on the authorities for information that we will print. We are not in a position to do any independent investigation, which may yet put us at legal risk for doing so. In certain cases, we may try to tell something about the victim, that happens sometimes. In terms of trying to do our own investigation about what happened, no sir.
YOUNG – have you heard a lot of talk about this case outside of your Daily Journal office and work? Gray, no sir, I have not. Young – most of what you know, talking with reporters at the office. Gray – that’s correct. Young – traveling county? Gray – no one has come up to me outside office to talk about this case. But, I have had conversations at the dinner table with my wife or at church right after it happened about the tragedy. Over the past few months, not much outside the Daily Journal office.
YOUNG – What’s going out on Internet right now? Both sides? Gray – that’s correct.
FLEITAS – Since I last sat down a couple of minutes ago, how many hits are showing? Gray – 3,048. In past few minutes, several hundred more. Gray – I expect it will continue until about 5 p.m.
With respect to NEMS360 articles, can you look at number of hits on them? YOUNG – -Your honor, I didn’t go into these articles to have him go back and bring them up.
JUDGE – what’s reason for this question?
FLEITAS – I think Young asked about hits, what it means. YOUNG – I think we’ve covered it very well.
FLEITAS – Think it’s a major point of contention.
JUDGE – He testified about more hits in past few minutes.
FLEITAS – Mr. Gray, not much discussion in your circles? Gray – since initial death to the young lady, been very little discussion publicly. Fleitas – you don’t have your finger on the public sentiment about this case? Gray – no. Fleitas – on that question, you’ve got a feel for that? Gray – a lot at first, but not a lot since. There may be other people talking about it that I’m not talking to. Fleitas – perception in your paper is that public is interested, so you devote resources to coverage. Gray – we exist, our company mission to build community, you have to be successful. We certainly want people to read our newspaper and go to our web site. But our fundamental responsibility is to inform the public. In some cases, it wouldn’t matter how many people looked at the story. Not every decision is made on Internet visits or to generate sales.
3 p.m. – excuse
FLEITAS – Defendant rests.
• • •
TUPELO – 12:50 p.m. – Judge Roberts recesses for lunch break. Will resume by 2 p.m. Awaiting information testimony by Daily Journal editor Lloyd Gray.
• • •
TUPELO – Sonia Hill was subpoenaed to be in today’s change of venue hearing for Thomas Ward.
Ward is accused in the 2010 depraved heart murder of Anna Catherine McCoy.
HILL – Says she doesn’t know McCoy family personally. Familiar with their reputation, that he was former policeman. Read about this case in newspaper, on Internet, Facebook but not lately.
FLEITAS – Heard general public comment on case?
HILL – Yes. Comments indicate malice, ill will, hatred toward Mr. Ward. That he’s guilty.
News media, some but not a lot. Can’t say if it’s more than other cases.
Opinion – I don’t believe Thomas can get a fair trial in Lee County. People still talking about this case.
DANIELS – Did you sign an affidavit? Subpoenaed?
HILL – Yes. Thomas lived in my neighborhood a few years ago. Know his father, when I see him. Known him about 10 years. Friend of his.
DANIELS – Much media saturation?
HILL – Been some. Most back when it first happened. Also Facebook, read some remarks there. Nothing recent, mostly in past.
DANIELS – News accounts ever report facts of the case, other than she died of gunshot at his house and he was charged?
HILL – I can’t answer that honestly, I don’t remember. I’ve seen it on TV and I’ve heard it, but I can’t remember the details. Live in Saltillo, where Ward resides.
FLEITAS – 12:43 p.m. – You have interacted with public on daily basis. Agree this case remains something people talk about?
HILL – Absolutely.
Excused 12:44 p.m.
• • •
JUDGE – How much longer?
FLEITAS – May only call one more question. Subpoenaed Mr. Gray, would like to call him. Perhaps only remaining witness, with exception of Mr. Lloyd Gray, we will rest.
JUDGE – How long for him to get here? (Fleitas says he’ll call and ask.) If he’s not here, I’m inclined to take a recess. Go make your call.
• • •
TUPELO – Treva Sheffield works at Johnnie’s Drive-in.
She begins testimony at change of venue hearing requested by Thomas J. Ward, accused in the depraved heart murder death of Anna Catherine McCoy.
Sheffield says she’s read newspaper, TV reports. Last week, just a quick story about getting ready for case to come up. Been hearing about it since McCoy died.
FLEITAS – Media coverage great?
SHEFFIELD – Yes, it has. Believe it has a bearing on whether Ward can get a fair trial. I’ve had comments at Johnnie’s saying he was already guilty. I was on jury duty in May and a juror was afraid we would be on the Ward case. Part of a jury pool.
This case was a matter of conversation while she was on jury duty. Curious about case. Wondered if we were going to be on it. Aware of it. Afraid it would come up. I just didn’t want to be there, I didn’t think it would be a fair trial. We all know Cotton, I just think somebody needs a fair trial. Felt, from jury pool, several of us felt he couldn’t get a fair trial. They didn’t want to serve.
Familiar with Cotton McCoy. I couldn’t decide it, based on knowing him. Others said so. Public remarks, I spoke with somebody the other day that they don’t think he can get a fair trial.
DANIELS – (She’s worked at Johnnie’s off and on for 30 years.) Asks her about East Tupelo, where Johnnie’s is located. That’s where Cotton’s from, isn’t it?
SHEFFIELD – We know Cotton McCoy, he’s from Tupelo. When called, speculated it could be this case. Talked to 5-10 people on jury pool about it, most knew it was going to be a hard case. Nobody knew the facts of the case.
Daniels says, if trial in Lee County, everybody that didn’t want to be there and didn’t feel they could be fair, and the court struck all those and people who knew them? Do you feel like then, he could get a fair trial?
SHEFFIELD – I can’t say.
FLEITAS – Have some remarks indicated to you that some folks would like to be ont hejury to find him guilty?
SHEFFIELD – No. But jurors knew about case and were worried about it. Had read about it, seen it on TV. Some people may have pre-judged the case but won’t say they have. Opinion – I would say no, he cannot get a fair trial in Lee County.
12:34 – excuse
• • •
TUPELO – Arik Lewis of Guntown takes the stand in change of venue hearing for Thomas J. Ward, accused in the depraved heart murder of Anna Catherine McCoy.
Lewis says he works at Lee County Jail.
FLEITAS – 12:10 P.M. – Asks Lewis if he joined McCoy Facebook page.
LEWIS – Yes, did. Doesn’t recall he’s ever said anything hateful about McCoy on Facebook or in public.
FLEITAS – Exhibit B – Shows document to Lewis. Internet post – message from Wooten, then you post another comment. Was it hateful?
LEWIS – Not any more derogatory as anyone.
FLEITAS – Read it.
LEWIS – Reads – (hard to hear him – sounds like he said he hopes he will fry). I did but I don’t remember doing it.
FLEITAS – Did you make other statements? Lewis says he doesn’t remember. Were you in law enforcement at that time? No, I wasn’t, Lewis said.
Would you agree there’s ill will or malice out there toward Ward?
LEWIS – A few.
FLEITAS – Have you expressed such statements to others?
LEWIS – Not that I recall, other than what you showed me just now. I might have. Fleitas says, you might have.
FLEITAS – Did you want to hurt Mr. Ward? Others to hurt him?
LEWIS – No. (What about Fry, MF, FY? Fleitas asks) May have been what was going through my head at the time.
FLEITAS – Asks to submit into evidence. Daniels objects. (Judge says he’ll admit. It is whatever it is. The court understands that.)
FLEITAS – You don’t want Mr. WArd to get a fair trial, do you? Lewis says he believes Ward deserves a fair trial. Fleitas – you don’t want him to fry? Lewis – no, changed mind.
So, if Ward thinks he needs to be somewhere else to get a fair trial, you would agree?
LEWIS – What’s somewhere else? This is as fair as anywhere else.
YOUNG – Most comments that you heard made about this case are from people who were friends with Anna, correct? Lewis – yes.
You may have made a comment about “fry.” Is that unusual? If you thought he had wrongfully killed Anna McCoy?
Lewis – No sir.
YOUNG – Expressions of ill will are people who know him and know her?
LEWIS – Yes sir.
YOUNG – Say it’s a small amount of people you’ve seen who’ve said anything about this case?
LEWIS – yes sir. Haven’t heard from anybody much. Most people don’t talk about this case at all. Want Ward to receive a fair trial. Believe people of Lee County can give Mr. Ward a fair trial, right here.
FLEITAS – Read newspapers? NEMS360, WTVA?
LEWIS – No sir, not much. TV, just for the weather. A lot of people don’t even know what has happened. Not more than average case. More didn’t know Anna as did know her. Her father, well known. Well thought of.
FEITAS – Call Treva Sheffield
• • •
TUPELO – Change of venue hearing continues for depraved heart murder defendant Thomas J. Ward.
FLEITAS – Calls Cody Wooten to stand. 11:48 a.m.
WOOTEN – Resides in Saltillo, about 15 years. Fleitas asks him to look at screen capture of Facebook page. (Exhibit A) Anna McCoy memorial page.
Involved in creation of that page, its administrator. Looking at that screen capture, the page had 1,752 “friends.” (Wooten explains how people become Facebook friends.) Expresses interest in Anna, upset about her death. For Lee County, that’s a lot of people. Never gone through Friends list, not aware of public officials who joined. Close friend of Anna. Bear ill will and malice toward Mr. Ward. Haven’t expressed on Facebook. Have talked to other people about him.
Haven’t prejudged him. Expressed anger toward him. I wouldn’t say hatred. Angry about everything that’s happened. Don’t express in public. Other people have said they feel the same way. With Anna’s friends, there’s ill will and malice. McCoy’s family well thought of. She was a good person. Circumstances of her death are tragic.
Followed news media coverage. Not regularly, since April. Not aware of any others. Made conscious decision not to read any more about it. Not aware McCoy family has asked people not to comment. Not read blogs, print media.
FLEITAS – Asks Exhibit A be admitted. Daniels objects – it’s a select page, not entire document. Don’t think it’s properly authenticated, statements on there by various people who we can’t question if it’s authentic. Fleitas – says he’s the creator of that page and has authenticated it. No reason that … it’s simply what page is and how many people have joined, which is relevent. Daniels – that’s in record, but it’s … I can take a piece of paper and 20 people can write on it, and I can’t authenticate it. He can’t testify about who said what and when. Fleitas – it’s same as what state has offered all morning – people’s opinions.
JUDGE – I understand this is what it is. His creation, his idea. No one else has authenticated. I’m going to admit it for whatever it represents, his creation. Understand and respect state’s objection. I will have to deal with it.
FLEITAS – 11:58 – No more questions.
DANIELS – Was Anna your friend?
WOOTEN – Yes, I did it for her. Didn’t do it to condemn Mr. Ward. As means for friends and family to express thoughts and grief. I grieve for the loss of my friend, don’t feel it’s wrong. Anger toward Ward. Trying to deal with that. Not posting hateful messages about him to the Internet.
DANIELS – These 1700 visitors, how many from Lee? Wooten says he doesn’t know. From Fulton? Wooten says perhaps majority. That’s in Itawamba County. How many are students? Wooten says most, my age, under 21 majority. Were these friends of Anna’s, classmates? Wooten says yes, could be from any number of counties.
Based on what you’ve garnered from web page, you’re speaking not just with Anna’s family and friends? From general public, do you think there’s a grudge or ill will that he can’t get a fair trial in Lee County?
WOOTEN – I don’t. I feel like he can get a fair trial.
FLEITAS – Asked about reviews of friends. You said you hadn’t.
WOOTEN – I’ve seen posts, I haven’t reviewed the friends. Old, Young. No age limit on who can join, no geographic limits. Becoming a friend is more than a visit.
FLEITAS asks him if joining is more? Wooten says he has about 800 friends, not very many. This page joiners are twice as much as you have? Yes, Wooten says. Connects 1,752 people through this page, and their friends can connect etc.? Yes, he says.
Fleitas says it’s more than those who are connected? Wooten says it can spread from page to page. That’s how it works. So, we’re really not just talking about those 1,752 but a whole community. Wooten says, no. Fleitas says it’s 1,700 people who make a community around that issue. Created a forum for at least that many people? Wooten says yes. They have links to many more, don’t they? Yes, Wooten says.
Fleitas, we could be talking about 10s of thousands of people knowing about it, connected to that page. Your friends are connected with it through you. Others are connected the same. Wooten says everybody in United States could know about it, if they’re on Facebook. That’s the issue, Fleitas says. Potential for 10s of thousands of people to be aware of this page? Wooten, I’m aware that people on this page and my page are aware.
DANIELS – I have questions in light of all that.
Mr. Wooten, if somebody logs on to this web site, does what they say make news? Is it about the facts of this case? Wooten, says no. It’s not prejudicial to Mr. Ward.
1,700 saying I miss you and you’re missed – isn’t that just a condolence? Wooten, yes.
We’re not talking about media coverage about the facts of this case. We’re talking about people grieving for Anna Catherine McCoy? Wooten, says that’s right.
FLEITAS – One question. Do you agree the folks who share your feelings overwhelmingly joined this page?
Wooten – yes.
12:09 p.m. excused
• • •
FLEITAS – Call Eric Lewis
• • •
TUPELO – 11:24 a.m. – Change of venue hearing continues for Thomas J. Ward in the depraved heart murder case of Anna Catherine McCoy.
(Bench conversation with judge by lawyers quickly ends.)
Young wants to talk more with judge. 11:26. Lawyers come back to bench.
Fleitas tells judge he needs to be excused to handle brief business. He exits court room.
ROBERTS – Realize court has been in session for quite a while. But some things we need to do to conclude it. Appreciate your quiet behavior. We’ll move ahead as quickly as we can. Docket is as full as it can be.
11:32 – Fleitas returns to courtroom. DA, Daniels aren’t in courtroom. Daniels returns. Ward at defense table looking through documents.
11:36 – Fleitas calls Christy Faye, lives in Tupelo
FAYE – Employed at local restaurant. Waitress. Recalls incident there involving Ward. McCoy family member also involved. Says she observed that Ward and friend there and lady got up, glared at him, threw a cup at him, cussing, made a big scene,. Made all kinds of bad comments. Everybody looking. Ward didn’t do anything to provoke her, did not respond.
Restaurant was full of people. Busy. Lunchtime, it’s pretty popular place. Every table just about full. Fleitas asks what woman said to him – she basically said, FAye said, that he was going to hell, that he was a murderer, in front of everybody. Going on and on. Reaction to people in restaurant? It was really loud, small building. It got dead silent, everybody turned around a looked. Customers asked what was going on.
Fleitas asks if other people expressed hateful attitudes toward Ward. She says yes. She says she doesn’t think he can get a fair trial. She doesn’t watch the news because she doesn’t want to see. Heard other people talking about case. A lot negative toward Ward.
CROSS EXAMINATION 11:41
DANIELS – At time of incident, how many in restaurant. She says it was full. He asks how many. She says maybe 60. Dont’ know how many of them knew him, just all talking about it, asking me what was going on. Not every one of them said something to me about it. All talking and asking about it. Didn’t talk to them about it. I knew what it was about – because I was friends with Anna, but on other hand I was doing my job at work. Just being honest about what happened.
Daniels asks about woman who made a scene – it was Anna’s sister. Entirely understandable that she would have some ill feelings about this? Yes sir. Do you have opinion about his guilty – I don’t think he is guilty of this crime.
FLEITAS – Regardless of your opinion, is what you observed at restaurant to be shocking?
Faye – She says it was shocking. No justification for what she did.
11:45 – She is excused. Yes, please, Daniels says.
FLEITAS – Calls Cody Wooten.
• • •
TUPELO – 11:25 a.m. – Pause in change of venue hearing for Thomas J. Ward in the depraved heart murder case of Anna Cathering McCoy.
Ward’s attorney, Victor Fleitas, received a few minutes to handle “other business,” which may be a subpoena to get someone else in the courtroom to support their case that Ward cannot get a fair trial in Lee County because of pre-trial publicity.
11:32 – Fleitas back in courtroom.
• • •
TUPELO – 11:00 a.m. – Change of venue hearing continues for Thomas J. Ward.
DA John Young cross-examines Sheriff Jim Johnson.
JOHNSON – Involved in law enforcement since 1982. Seeking re-election. Just won GOP nomination. Face Democrat in November.
Only knows Ward by sight, not personally. When he was arrested, placed in Lee Jail until he made bond. Knew Anna Catherine McCoy. Knows her parents. Knows Cotton when he worked for Tupelo Police Dept., friends then and ever since.
Johnson says he’s in contact with public every day, even more during an election year personally. Campaigns door to door, goes to events. Young asks him if he’s heard a lot of talk about this case against Ward? No, Johnson says, not to any degree beyond anything else people want to talk about. Saltillo Police worked this case. Recalls reading a few stories when crime was committed, that’s normal procedure for them to contact us. Probably some news releases about arrest and initial appearance. Other than that, not aware of anything else.
Young asks about media saturation? Johnson says no, absolutely not. In Saltillo area, personally campaigned recently. There and in other areas, did they ask you about this case, Young asks. Johnson says he can’t recall the first person asking him about this case, throughout his campaign.
Young, basically over this whole year, you’ve heard very little comment about this case? Johnson, that’s correct. Doesn’t think public has pre-judged this case. Doesn’t think there’s general feeling of ill will toward Ward or that public has formed a grudge against Ward.
Johnson says he believes Ward can receive a fair trial in Lee County. Opinion not affected by fact that he’s sheriff or running for re-election. No, Johnson says, it’s not going to change my opinion about a fair trial. Not much attention to this case, not from any one or group or media to sway opinion. Believe he can receive a fair trial. I’d tell you the truth,.
FLEITAS – 11:09 – Johnson says in law enforcement with McCoy at same time, not in same department. Still friends with McCoy, Daughters are same age and went to school together. Daughter and Anna went to Tupelo together. Carpooled some times. Attended funeral services for Anna. Good number of people at funeral. Family known in county, well regarded. Anna was a beautiful girl. Circumstances of her death are tragic. Crime itself will generate media attention.
Johnson says testified at change of venue hearings. One was justified. Capital murder trial of Dale Leo Bishop. Another defendent transferred to Tishomingo County. Only two times I can recall, was with sheriff’s department as investigator. I testified for the state.
Fleitas asks about election. Johnson says he has opponent in November. Johnson says he isn’t aware of McCoy family sentiment about this issue. Johnson says he doesn’t get the paper and not aware of print media coverage. Probably read Internet coverage about case. Hasn’t read anything since. Social media? On Facebook, hasn’t followed it but may have been some comments. Did not join McCoy Facebook page. Not aware of it. TV coverage, remember night of incident and maybe day of arrest. Don’t watch it every night.
Johnson, says he can’t say he’s made purposeful decisions one way or another to read about this case. Comments about ill-will, prejudice or hate about Ward? Johnson says he doesn’t recall seeing anything like that. Hasn’t in past year had any significant conversations about this case. In campaign, when you’re candidate, people are going to tell you their opinions, good or bad. I get the media frenzy. But I haven’t had one comment from anybody about Mr. Ward or his case. I know people will not hold back and tell me their opinions. I’ve been in people’s houses all year long.
Fleitas, asks if Ward was held at jail? Johnson says yes, at Lee jail. Don’t recall any discussions with him about concerns for Ward in jail because of McCoy family.
Fleitas asks about specific jail employee. Johnson says he’s former employee, not aware of any relationship with McCoy family. First I’ve heard about it, he says.
11:19 – RE-DIRECT
YOUNG – Briefly, your honor.
Asks Johnson about McCoy family. Sheriff says met Cotton when he was on motorcycle patrol at Tupelo police. Strictly law enforcement related. All get to know each other. Doesn’t mean everybody in county knows Cotton McCoy and his family? No, Johnson says. Opinion on whether McCoy’s good reputation in area, would it keep Ward from getting a fair trial, Young asks? No, Johnson says.
Johnson – I couldn’t tell you where Mr. McCoy lives right now. Whether friendships have any ability to sway anybody, I couldn’t tell you. A lot know him, good or bad. Still believe he can get a fair trial, absolutely.
11:22 – released.
• • •
TUPELO – 10:40 a.m. Testimony continues in change of venue hearing for murder defendant Thomas J. Ward.
10: 42 – Supervisor Phil Morgan takes the stand.
MORGAN – Travels the county, especially in election year. Says he hasn’t heard much or anything about this case. Until you asked me just now, didn’t know what this hearing was about.
Daniels asks if anybody has told him that Ward couldn’t get a fair trial in Lee County?
Morgan, no sir, I haven’t heard any discussion about this. I go to coffee shops, where talk about everything. I’m sure there has been some coverage or this case but my mind has been on politics, rather than this. Says he reads the news but doesn’t recall reading anything about this case. If took place in April 2010, probably did but don’t recall. Doesn’t know Ward.
MORGAN – Hasn’t heard any talk about Ward or his guilt. Watches TV news, if I can. Doesn’t recall any coverage there. Aware of Anna Catherine’s death. Knows Cotton McCoy, think he still lives in my district around Barnes Crossing area. Doesn’t consider the family one of great notoriety. Since April 2010, hasn’t heard anything that people of Lee County bare any pre-judgment or ill will toward Ward about this case.
Daniels asks him based on talking, news, do you feel he can receive a fair trial in Lee County? Morgan says yes, I believe he could. That a Lee County jury could give him a fair trial. Think they would.
Daniels, is this personal opinion or as supervisor? Morgan says it’s his personal opinion. Don’t see any grudges.
FLEITAS – 10:48 – Mr. Morgan, have you testified about change of venue hearings?
MORGAN – Yes, probably four or five times. At least three times. I think twice actually testified.
Fleitas asks what he said. Morgan says every time, he’s said venue should not be changed. Fleitas asks why asked? Morgan says must be because a supervisor and out in the county, hearing from public. Others interact with public in daily basis.
MORGAN – I receive three newspapers. I recall coverage months ago. Just read local news. Doesn’t use Internet for news. Except the other night, couldn’t get any local election results unless you went on Internet. Hasn’t heard, seen any negative comments by public about this case. From Fleitas question, says he doesn’t have all the information but that if he knew about hateful comments about Mr. Ward, if a lot of hateful comments might impact him. Or could influence others.
Know of Mr. McCoy. Not personal friends, he’s a constituent. Family well regarded. Did not know Anna.
Fleitas asks if he thinks a photo wearing prison garb would be prejudicial? Morgan says, not if that person deserves to be in prison garb. Agree media interest in this matter, even though not informed about all this.
MORGAN – Not running unopposed. I have opponent in general election. Fleitas asks if it would hurt him to say Lee County jury couldn’t be impartial? Morgan says he doesn’t think it would hurt him either way. Aware media at hearing.
DANIELS – Say you don’t get alot of news from the Internet. Morgan says that’s right.
MORGAN – Hasn’t read every news article. Hasn’t watched every TV news story about it, or every web site or blog about it. Doesn’t think there are a lot of people out there who have read all these – I doubt that very seriously. Most people like me. Believe Mr. Ward can receive a fair trial by a Lee County jury.
10:59 – released
• • •
TUPELO – Change of venue hearing continues for murder suspect Thomas Ward.
10:27 – Supervisor Joe McKinney takes the stand.
MCKINNEY – Says he’s out in the county every day. Hasn’t heard any ill will toward Ward. Reads news somewhat regularly, especially in an election year. Hasn’t read much news coverage about this matter, aware some articles, maybe some of TV news. Coverage – wouldn’t describe this as media saturation or sensational.
Online? Doesn’t read that much – very rarely.
Hasn’t heard from anybody in Lee County with opinions about this case that Ward couldn’t get a fair trial in Lee County by a Lee County jury. Travels around county a lot.
Some news coverage – Daniels asks if he feels Lee County people bare Ward any grudge or ill will because of McCoy’s death? McKinney says he doesn’t think enough people are aware of what happened to hold a grudge. I don’t know him and still don’t.
FLEITAS – Asked McKinney about election results. McKinney says he’s in runoff for re-election.
McKinney says he’s not aware that this hearing is being covered. Didn’t see TV vehicle outside.
Fleitas asks if he knows change of venue would cost county extra. That’s what I’ve been told, McKinney says, Also, says he’s concerned about our spending but more concerned about this man getting a fair trial.
In contested election, Fleitas asks, is it helpful to get on the stand to say he can get a fair trial? McKinney says he hasn’t thought about it. Didn’t realize news media would be here. Rather not be in the public eye on this matter. Cuts both ways. Anything I do that makes the news concerns me, politically speaking.
Fleitas asks if he knows McCoy family? McKinney says knows some, knows of Cotton McCoy, who was Tupelo policeman. Would imagine McCoy family is well regarded. Anna’s death was a tragedy, regardless of how this turns out.
Says reads Daily Journal. Hasn’t read any articles about this case. Hasn’t seen any. Front Page – don’t know. Other media coverage – don’t know for sure. Assume probably was, but don’t know for sure.
Fleitas asks, does coverage help or hinder the legal process? McKinney says if jury was well aware, that could cause a problem. Through media, social media. McKinney says he doesn’t do Facebook, but is familiar with it. TV coverage – could have impact.
McKinney – if media saturated with something to stick in jury’s mind, it could have a bearing.
Fleitas, what about a picture of youthful young girl stick in mind? McKinney, imagine so. Fleitas, does picture of young man in jail garb stick in public mind? McKinney – if in paper or on TV, possibly. Fleitas asks him if he’s seen sheriff or police walking somebody in shackles and jail garb walking? McKinney says yes, common on WTVA. Fleitas – would images like that tend to create a negative imagine in public’s mind? McKinney says that coming to trial has some bearing on people’s mindset, would have a bearing.
DANIELS – Asks if his opinion about fair trial? McKinney – believe he can get a fair trial. I know what’s going on, it’s so unfortunately. I don’t know the man. I think he can get a fair trial.
10:39 – released
State calls Phil Morgan.
• • •
TUPELO – Hearing continues …
GREEN – Travel around entire county. Generally heard about case. People were sad, but no specifics. Interest in her death – yes, just the tragedy.
DANIELS – Pick up on any ill will toward Ward?
GREEN – No, most people didn’t even know his name. Most people didn’t even know facts of the case. Says hasn’t heard any remarks about Ward’s guilt or innocence. Pays attention to the news.
Typically, reads it online. Watches TV occasionally, WTVA, WCBI.
Coverage about case, hasn’t seen much coverage. Initially, that it happened but none recently. Haven’t read a lot online about it. At first, a few articles. It seemed very vague, general about what happened. Facts of case or culpability or lack of it, articles were pretty innocuous.
Based on all we’ve talked about, opinion that he can receive a fair trial in Lee County. Haven’t heard anything otherwise. Can have fair, impartial trial here.
(DA calls Daniels over for likely suggestion.)
DANIELS – We talk about ill will toward Ward, I mean any pre-judgment indicated to you by speaking to people?
GREEN – General opinion, tragedy but whoever did it should be punished. No pre-judgment. No grudges in Lee County.
FLEITAS – 10:11 a.m. – You’re elected official, re-elected without opponent? Good will of public is important to an official.
GREEN – In job, work with law enforcement. Don’t consider myself as part of law enforcement. Will be witness, presume, because signed death certificate. On behalf of state. Communicated with State Crime Lab about case, following up with them to get final autopsy report, that sort of thing. Did scene investigation. That’s my involvement.
Prior to that, knew Mr. McCoy was a Tupelo officer and wife was Nettleton teacher. No particular relationship. Knew of Mr. McCoy. I know a lot of folks, their names. Knew a lot of people knew he was on the police force, don’t know about Mrs. McCoy. He is well-regarded.
(Would it be awkward for Lee public official to say someone couldn’t get a fair trial?)
GREEN – I haven’t seen anything indicative of ill will or malice toward him. Haven’t heard his name or family’s name mentioned in the media.
(Fleitas – asks about TV news cycles. She says she hasn’t paid attention. She says saw initial coverage of case. Unaware of anything about case was continued. Says unaware that change of venue motion was filed.)
Says she hasn’t seen online article about case’s continuance, set for trial, change of venue motion. Didn’t know about hearing until she was called to deal with it.
(Fleitas shows copies of news stories to Young, Daniels.)
10:17 – Fleitas hands Green copies of some news articles.
He asks he to look at them (3 documents). She does.
GREEN – Not familiar with them. Says article from NEMS360, Daily Journal’s web site. Reads it but not on a daily basis. Dates on articles – DANIELS – says how many articles? FLEITAS – Says two articles.
Says article July 21st, doesn’t see date on other. Usually doesn’t read comments. Sometimes but don’t recall unless related to Coroner’s Office.
Fleitas asks if she’s read comments about this case? She says maybe just after death, about coroner’s office. Asks her about article about date for this hearing, what about? Headline says trial set, other says depraved heart murder case.
Fleitas asks her to look at Exhibit C – She flips through series of printed pages. (Must be prior news articles.) Asks her if she saw photograph of his client? Yes, she says. Is that a mug shot, he asks, in jail? Green says yes. Fleitas asks if that engenders prejudice? Green says no, that (picture in jail clothing would not engender ill will?). She says it wouldn’t engender her ill will but she can’t speak for general public.
DANIELS – Based on those 2 articles before you, about case set for trial, continued, change of venue.
GREEN – Doesn’t consider them prejudicial. Doesn’t change her mind that he can get fair trial in Lee County.
DANIELS – Calls Joe McKinney.
• • •
* * *
TUPELO – Attorney Victory Fleitas told a circuit judge this morning that pre-trial publicity prevents his client, Thomas J. Ward, from getting a fair trial in Lee County.
Ward, 24, is accused of the depraved heart murder of Anna Catherine McCoy, fatally shot at his Saltillo home April 15, 2010.
A Lee County grand jury indicted Ward on Oct. 5. He insists he is not guilty.
Circuit Judge James L. Roberts Jr. heard various testimony related to Fleitas’ contentions that pre-trial publicity was so extensive that it will be impossible to find enough unbiased jurors to fairly try Ward later this month.
Ward could face the death penalty, if convicted in McCoy’s death.
More than a dozen of McCoy’s family and friends are in the audience for the hearing at the Lee County Justice Center in downtown Tupelo. McCoy was a student at Itawamba Community College, where she played soccer.
Depraved heart murder is a murder charge compounded by actions so callous that they completely disregard the possibilities of fatal consequences.
David Daniels, assistant district attorney, represents the state in today’s hearing.
Here is a rolling account of the hearing. (Please excuse the likely typos and other glitches from real-time reporting. Updates, if they occur, will be posted on top of earlier accounts. Also watch for Twitter posts @RealNewsQueen):
• • •
9:33 – Fleitas returns to courtroom with his client, who’s dressed in slacks, long-sleeve Oxford-cloth shirt and a tie. They exit the courtroom, likely for a conference.
9:35 – Judge Roberts enters courtroom. Sheriff Jim Johnson joins a deputy near the front of the room.
Judge says court’s been delayed to permit some lawyers to take care “some technical matters.” Says he’ll wait to make a proper announcement after all their business has taken place.
9:38 – Fleitas back. Hands paperwork to the judge.
ROBERTS – Plea and revocation day. I’m told a lot of business for the court to transact. Will be here all day today and tomorrow to handle.
First on docket is a motion for change of venue, state versus Thomas James Ward. The court first will hear that matter. I have conferred at some length with counsel for both sides and as to how much time to be required for hearing. All matters are important. Not going to limit counsel but guess that hearing will take until maybe 11 a.m., most of morning. To counsel, hope that matter can be completed by noon. Considering matters to be raised, it will move expeditiously.
For lawyers, officers – large number of revocations set and pleas. I will hear change of venue motion first, then move into revocations. They can move more quickly. So, I’ll move as well as I can and believe by end of today or tomorrow, everyone can be accommodated. If waiting on revocations, my belief it will be 11:30 or later.
(D.A. John Young enters courtroom. 9:41)
9:42 – judge calls change of Thomas case.
ROBERTS – Matter, defendant’s motion for change of venue. Has been filed with that motion two affidavits required, and supplemental affidavits. (Fleitas, state say ready to proceed.)
(Explains change of venue statute. Case law says presumption arises that an impartial jury is unattainable. It’s rebuttalable. Record shows motion/affidavits raises that presumption. State wishes to rebut it. Court will hear witnesses from both sides. Believe an agreement has been reached to permit defendant to call out-of-order, one witness?)
FLEITAS – Defense will not make opening satements. (Young agrees, too. Defense invokes the rule to sequester witnesses from courtroom.)
Calls Lisa Massey. (She’s wearing a lilac-hued two-piece suit, with very sassy cream-colored sling-back, platform high heel shoes.)
MASSEY – Lives in Tupelo. Lived in Lee County over 30 years. Familiar with State v. Ward, very familiar she says. Submitted affidavit with change of venue motion. Grew up in Tupelo. She’s an attorney, civil and criminal. Knows Ward, McCoy’s father (very well).
McCoy’s father was a very beloved police officer, Cotton McCoy. Worked job very long time, before I went to law school. Very well known throughout the county. Well thought of.. Family well thought of. Anna very well regarded.
Media publicity – WTVA and Daily Journal. Coverage on WCBI too. Don’t know about radio coverage. Social media – Facebook a lot of coverage there. Member of Facebook community. Not very familiar with Facebook, doesn’t post there a lot.
(Fleitas asks her to explain how Facebook operates. She does.)
Remarks on Facebook to indicate violence, malice toward Ward? She says absolutely.
Other media coverage online – like NEMS360.com – says she hasn’t viewed it. Just reads the newspaper. Coverage, calls it extreme, a frenzy of media coverage.
Interaction with community – aware of ill-will, malice and prejudgment? I have. In my opinion, there is evidence of that. Believes he cannot get a fair trial in Lee County, give the media coverage, knowledge of ill-will. “I know he cannot.”
Massey (under subpoena) – says she’s close friends with Cotton McCoy as member of community and officer of the court. Says because she’s officer of the court and believes in justice and fairness, she should testify.
DANIELS – Asks how many cases she’s tried in Lee County?
MASSEY – none. Not in Lee County.
DANIELS – Say Cotton McCoy is well-known throughout Lee, other than being Tupelo police officer, is there any great notoriety about him?
MASSEY – She says he stood out as an exemplary officer, well-loved. Attended Anna’s funeral and vast number there, amazing the turnout, pouring of love to him and family. Doesn’t think he’s held public office. Notoriety stems from “type of officer he was in Tupelo.”
Not aware of personal awards to him, but he probably did.
DANIELS – Not your obligation to come in here and say he’s well known when you don’t have any evidence of his accolades, to say a man can’t get a fair trial.
MASSEY – No, not aware of coverage or awards. My own personal knowledge of family.
DANIELS – Daily Journal, most widely distributed in area?
MASSEY – I believe it is. Says she doesn’t know how many DJ articles have been written about this – four or five. May be thinking of Lee County Courier, too.
DANIELS – That’s not exactly media saturation, is it, 4-5 articles over a long period?
MASSEY – I think it is.
Daniels asks her if public interest translates into public ill-will? She says for all fairness, a person should have an impartial jury. Daniels asks it again. She says not necessarily. Daniels says thank you.
DANIELS – Interest doesn’t mean necessarily that the public of Lee County has pre-judged Ward to be guilty?
Massey says it doesn’t.
Facebook – how many times been to Ann McCoy memorial page? Massey says she hasn’t been to, just numerous derogatory message online. Don’t know how many were from her friends or relatives, only knew her father.
Daniels asks if she knows no posts since April 11? Massey says she isn’t.
FLEITAS – Asks her about pre-trial publicity and pre-judgment. About Thomas Ward and your observations in community, has the publicity and maters discussed outside this courtroom led to pre-judgment, ill-will and malice toward Mr. Ward?
MASSEY – Believe yes. All Facebook I’ve read have been very very negative toward Mr. Ward. For him to get a fair trial, I don’t think it’s going to be in Lee County, Mississippi.
(Massey may leave.)
10:04 – JUDGE – Is state ready?
DANIELS – Calls Carolyn Gillentine-Green, county coroner.
* * *
TUPELO – Attorneys for murder suspect Thomas J. Ward will ask the circuit court to change his trial location or jury pool this morning.
Ward, 24, is accused of the depraved heart murder of Anna Catherine McCoy, fatally shot at his Saltillo home April 15, 2010.
Judge James L. Roberts Jr. will decide if pre-trial publicity makes it impossible for Ward to get a fair trial in Lee County.
If that’s the decision, Roberts could move the trial to another county or draw the jury pool from somewhere else, where accounts of McCoy’s death were less prominent.
The hearing is set to begin at 9 a.m. but several other hearings are scheduled, most to revoke probations.
• Come back to NEMS360.com for updates. Read Friday’s Daily Journal for more information.