Local lawmakers, Caledonia”s mayor and a local school board member have been under scrutiny for signing affidavits in support of moving Brian Holliman”s murder trial out of Lowndes County.
Holliman is accused of shooting his wife, Laura Holliman, to death in the couple”s Caledonia home Oct. 25, 2008.
And while the move may be unique, experts say it”s not unethical.
“That”s the first I”ve heard of that,” Jonathan Winburn, an associate professor in political science at the University of Mississippi, said of politicians lending their signatures to a motion for change of venue. “I can”t say if it”s common or not. I”ve never really heard of it.”
At face value, it”s not unethical, he added, but it is a unique case.
“The lawyers need to do what”s best for their clients, particularly when the client”s life and liberty are on the line,” said Ben Cooper, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi and a legal ethics expert. “If (the lawyers) think approaching these individuals to get their help is going to aid in convincing a judge to move the trial, it”s something that they should do and seems like an arguably creative approach to doing it.”
As long as no laws are being broken, Cooper says it”s the defense”s job to pursue every possible advantage.
District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, said he wasn”t surprised by the request he sign the affidavit due to his position in the state House of Representatives and his law practice in Caledonia. He also serves as attorney to the town”s Board of Aldermen.
“I just see and hear a lot of people talking about the case. I feel like there are strong feelings in the area, that people have made their minds up,” said Smith. “I felt (Holliman) would have a fairer trial in another county with another jury.”
But, Smith said, the “strong feelings” go both ways.
Many in the Caledonia area already have concluded Holliman is guilty, but others believe in his innocence, Smith noted.
“People are talking both ways. It may not be 50/50,” said Smith.
Smith was approached by Holliman”s defense team in August and asked to sign an affidavit supporting a change of venue.
He chose to sign, as did Caledonia Mayor George Gerhart, District 17 Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, and former legislator Bruce Hanson, who also serves as a Columbus Municipal School District board member.
Gerhart has said the change of venue is necessary for justice to be served. He also admitted to being friends of the Holliman family.
Brown agreed; since both families are in the area, the trial should be moved, he has said.
Hanson declined to comment on the matter.
Winburn said Gerhart”s relationship to the family blurs the issue of ethics.
“It doesn”t jump out as being necessarily a conflict of interest or something they shouldn”t have done, but I tend to think elected officials should stay out of it,” said Winburn. “You don”t often think of politicians getting directly involved in a trial.”
Given the media attention devoted to Holliman”s case, his attorneys would have been negligent not to request a change of venue, said local attorney and public defender Donna Smith.
“Typically, in a capital murder case there”s so much publicity that it taints the jury pool in the county. I would have been extremely surprised had Steven Farese (Holliman”s attorney) not filed that motion,” she said.
Based on her courtroom experience, Smith estimates an 85- to 90-percent chance the motion to move the trial is granted.
“With this case, I”d be surprised if the venue isn”t changed. It”s such a hot issue in this county. Not only the criminal case, but the civil case for change of custody (of the Hollimans” children),” said Smith.
Custody of the couple”s 4-year-old daughter was given to her maternal grandfather, Doyle Godfrey, according to Lowndes County Chancery Court documents. Laura and Brian also each had a child from previous relationships, a 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son; custody arrangements for these children were not sought in Chancery Court and, therefore, are not documented at the Lowndes County Courthouse.
“The lawyers need to do what”s best for their clients, particularly when the client”s life and liberty are on the line,” said Ben Cooper, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, a legal ethics expert.
“If (the lawyers) think approaching these individuals to get their help is going to aid in convincing a judge to move the trial, it”s something that they should do and seems like an arguably creative approach to doing it,” he added, noting it is the defense”s job to pursue every possible advantage.
Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard will decide on the motion to change venues, Oct. 20.
District Attorney Forrest Allgood has said he will prosecute the case, even if it falls outside of the 16th District.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.