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Outside jury sought in Bennett murder trial

March 18th, 2014 8:43 pm by Becky Campbell

Outside jury sought in Bennett murder trial

Steven Bennett

Defense attorneys in a well-publicized first-degree murder case asked a judge Tuesday to select the trial jury outside the coverage area of local media so the prospective panel will have no knowledge of the incident or their client.

The request came in a lengthy motion filed by attorneys for Steven Odell Bennett, 32, of Johnson City, who is charged with the strangulation death of 28-year-old Vonda Donaldson. Her body was pulled from the Watauga River near Butler Bridge Oct. 3, 2012. That was three days after she was reported missing to Johnson City police by her mother.

Donaldson’s family began to worry about her when they couldn’t reach her that Sunday and knew there was a big problem when she failed to pick up her children from their father after they spent the weekend with him.

Bennett, a friend of Donaldson’s was quickly developed as a suspect. When police arrested him later the same day as Donaldson’s disappearance, he had possession of her vehicle, according to police and court records.

The case received a lot of local media coverage — including publication of Bennett’s prior criminal convictions and the fact he was on parole when Donaldson was killed — and that has poisoned the jury pool in Washington County, defense attorneys Bill Francisco and Melanie Sellers believe.

“The media reports not only report the criminal history of Mr. Bennett, but they go in to details of what type of history that is, and I think the details of that criminal history is something that’s going to stick out in a reader’s and listener’s mind. The area for which these media reach (and) cover saturate Washington County,” Francisco told

He went on to say that reported information — “some accurate and some not so accurate” — will prejudice a potential juror.

Based on that, the defense asked for a change of venue “or at least individual voire dire,” Francisco said.

In making his argument, Francisco attempted to call this reporter to the stand to ask questions about the circulation reach of the Johnson City Press and her source for information about Bennett’s criminal history. After discussing the potential testimony during a requested recess, Francisco determined the information was not accessible in that manner.

Assistant District Attorney General Ken Baldwin opposed the change of venue, but said asking potential jurors what they know about the case would be prudent.

“It would behoove us to find out what they know,” if a potential juror has heard or read about the case, Baldwin said.

On the change of venue issue, Baldwin said the court should make the attempt to select a panel before moving the trial.

“This case is not any more unusual in cases we’ve had in the last 20 or 30 years in so far as pretrial publicity. It’s not like the Howard Hawk Willis case. This was in the news around the time it occurred,” and not constantly like the Wilils case, he said.

Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street agreed the court should first go through the process of selecting a jury from Washington County before ruling further to seek a panel from outside the county.

He granted the defense’s request to question jurors individually, but only on the pretrial publicity issue.

“My observation of this is that there was just an onslaught of articles and coverage about this case shortly after it happened, which is commonplace,” Street said. Since then, coverage has occurred only when there have been hearings.

Street also ruled on a state motion that asked for “reciprocal discovery,” from the defense. Prosecutors are required to hand over to the defense evidence they intend to use during a trial.

The defense doesn’t have that same obligation. In the state’s motion, prosecutors asked for copies of statements made by any defense witnesses as well as access to inspect all photographs or other tangible evidence the defense intends to use as evidence.

Sellers argued the motion for the defense and told Street the law is clear on what the defense is required to turn over, and what information the state is not entitled to know.

“Your honor knows the items discoverable by the state from the defendant are much more limited,” Sellers said.

“It’s simply something that the state is not entitled to,” she said, referring to the state’s request for defense witness statements.

“The defense is entitled to it from the state ... we do not have to furnish the state with copies we may have of statements the defendant may have made or our witnesses may have made,” she said.

The state is only privy to such a written document after that witnesses has testified.

Street agreed and denied that part of the state’s motion.

The state also asked Street to force the defense to turn over any material used to prepare for the trial and any exculpatory evidence, which is something that would be in Bennett’s favor of acquittal.

“You can be sure if we had something exculpatory we’d make it known. But this ‘material to the preparation of the case,’ is beyond what the rule requires,” Sellers said.

Street denied that part of the state’s motion, but granted its request that the defense provide a list of items intended to be used as evidence.

Sellers also said the defense is using expert witnesses in its case and will provide that information to the state as required.

Bennett’s next court hearing is May 1. His trial is scheduled to begin May 13.

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