Defense attorneys ask judge for removal from murder case

Becky Campbell • May 13, 2014 at 11:15 AM

A vague motion filed in a 2012 first-degree murder case set for trial today asks a judge to release the court-appointed attorneys because of a conflict, but the basis for the conflict was not revealed in the document.

Steven Odell Bennett, 32, of Johnson City, is currently represented by the First Judicial Public Defender’s Office, specifically attorneys Bill Francisco and Melanie Sellers. Bennett is charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse for the October 2012 strangulation death of 28-year-old Vonda Donaldson.

The homicide happened in Johnson City, but police investigators and prosecutors said Bennett drove Donaldson’s body to the Butler Bridge in Carter County and dumped her into Watauga Lake.

In the defense’s latest motion, filed April 23, Francisco and Sellers asks Judge Stacy Street to allow them to withdraw from representing Bennett “due to the fact that continued representation creates a conflict of interest for the Office of the District Public Defender.”

No other explanation was offered, but could become public when Street considers the motion Tuesday, which was supposed to be the first day of Bennett’s trial.

Usually conflicts come up when the defense team learns it has represented state witnesses in previous unrelated cases. It could be a situation where the defendant and his or her appointed attorney cannot get past some type of disagreement on how the case is being handled. Sometimes, the reason for the conflict never becomes public.

Previously filed motions, which Street heard in March, dealt with jury selection, pretrial publicity issues and the publication of Bennett’s prior criminal convictions. The defense said all that combined would make it impossible to select and impartial jury, but Street denied a request for a change of venue.

According to testimony at the preliminary hearing in 2012, Bennett told police he strangled Donaldson as the two were having sex, then she went limp, and he realized she wasn’t breathing.

When Bennett realized she was dead, he wrapped her in a tarp, weighed her down with chains and threw her off the Butler Bridge, according to police testimony.

Officers arrested Bennett early Sept. 30, 2012, at Leland Trailer Park. Police said Bennett was wearing sweatpants at the time, but officers retrieved a pair of pants Bennett was wearing at the time of Donaldson’s death. A court document indicates there was blood on those pants.

Donaldson’s body was found Oct. 3 after Bennett showed officers where he’d thrown the body off the bridge.

Donaldson’s family had reported her missing on Sept. 29 after they couldn’t reach her and she failed to pick up her children from their father that evening.

Bennett remains jailed on a $100,000 bond.

Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.

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