Judge rules against venue change for Houston County murder trial

bpurser@macon.comApril 5, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Macon Judicial Circuit Judge Tripp Self has ruled against a change of venue for the Houston County trial of a former state probation officer accused of killing his girlfriend.

The defense sought to try the case outside of Houston County because of pretrial publicity.

Self also ruled against moving the trial to a different location in Houston County as also requested by the defense because both the victim and accused worked in the Houston County Courthouse where the trial is scheduled to begin April 29.

Former state probation officer Russell Holt, 29, is accused of fatally shooting Jessica Wolfe, 27, in his home in March 2012. Wolfe was a legal assistant for the Houston County District Attorney’s Office. (Houston County judges and prosecutors recused themselves from the case.) Holt, who is free on bond, has pleaded not guilty to charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during a crime.

“The extent to which pretrial publicity may have improperly prejudiced the jury trial would be best uncovered and examined during voir dire,” Self wrote in the ruling. Voir dire is part of the jury selection process when the judge and attorneys ask potential jurors questions to determine if any juror is biased or unable to render a fair verdict.

While the judge denied the change of venue prior to jury selection, he noted the defense could renew its request during voir dire if warranted.

On moving the location within Houston County, Self ruled Holt had no statutory authority or case law to base his assumption that jurors would be improperly prejudiced or influenced by both Holt and Wolfe having worked in the courthouse where the trial was taking place.

“The court finds it highly unlikely that any reasonable juror would draw any particularly negative inference at all because, quite simply, most jurors understand that trials are held in courthouses,” Self wrote.

Self noted the trial of Brian Nichols, who fatally shot Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes on March 11, 2005, while the judge was seated on the bench, was held in the Fulton County Courthouse where the killing occurred. Nichols is serving a life sentence in connection to the slayings of Barnes, a court reporter and sheriff’s deputy in the courthouse and later a federal agent.

But should a juror, during the jury selection process, express misgivings about being able to be impartial because Holt or Wolfe worked in the courthouse, that juror could be struck from consideration, Self stated.

Self also ruled Holt’s “mutterings” to himself while left alone during a break in a police interrogation are admissible.

The prosecution and defense previously agreed Holt’s statements to police during the interrogation were not admissible because Holt had repeatedly requested an attorney, but the interrogation continued without one.

But attorneys had remained in dispute over statements Holt made to himself.

Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Peter J. Skandalakis, who is prosecuting the case, had argued there is no expectation of privacy in a police interrogation room when Holt was alone. But Franklin J. Hogue, a Macon attorney representing Holt, argued an exception because Holt’s statement to himself was made during a break during an already improper interrogation.

In his ruling, Self noted that Holt, who was a probation officer at the time of interrogation, would have been familiar with the police interrogation process and would have known he was being recorded.

“There is no evidence the police did anything to suggest to Defendant that he could speak to himself privately or that police attempted to elicit Defendant’s mutterings,” Self said in his ruling. “Rather, defendant began talking to himself on his own accord. Thus, Defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the interrogation room.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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