The location of Brian Holliman”s trial rests in the judge”s hands.
Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard heard arguments from defense attorney Steve Farese and District Attorney Forrest Allgood Tuesday during a hearing to determine if Holliman”s murder trial should be moved out of Lowndes County in the interest of providing a fair trial.
Holliman stands accused of the 2008 shotgun death of his wife, Laura, at their Caledonia home. Holliman reported the death as a suicide.
Howard concluded the hearing after 90 minutes of testimony, promising to issue a decision “as rapidly as possible.” His final thoughts before dismissing the hearing were directed toward a concern expressed by Farese regarding stealth jurors — those who would lie to be assigned a spot on the jury.
In his experience, Howard says such jurors have generally been anti-death penalty activists.
“That is a valid concern,” said Howard. “I have seen those type. They think the calling in not imposing the death penalty is greater than the truth.”
The death penalty is not an option in Holliman”s case.
Farese”s primary contention is that Holliman cannot receive a fair trial in Lowndes County due to pervasive public opinion regarding his guilt or innocence. He says that public sentiment is a direct result of media attention given to the case, some of which he claims is misleading.
“Some articles in the newspapers said Mr. Holliman confessed. That”s not true,” said Farese.
He says those reports have done irreparable harm to Holliman”s chances for a fair trial.
“The interest of justice trumps personal opinions and emotion. That”s the very foundation of a fair trial,” he said.
Allgood produced five witnesses, gathered from local businesses, who testified they have heard little talk of Holliman”s trial or opinions regarding his guilt or innocence since he was charged in October 2008.
The witnesses were asked to testify by an investigator for the District Attorney”s office, who traveled door-to-door to Columbus businesses asking about public interest in the trial. Witnesses included a gift store owner, a finance office employee, a retail sales associate, a lumberyard operator and an industrial operation technician.
Farese countered Allgood”s witnesses by calling on the testimony of Caledonia Mayor George Gerhart, a family friend of the Hollimans”, and State Rep. Jeff Smith D-Columbus, both of whom signed affidavits in August stating their belief Holliman could not receive a fair trial in Lowndes County due to the publicity surrounding his case.
Gerhart, in his third term as Caledonia mayor, testified approximately “three of every seven” people who have discussed Holliman”s case with him have formed an opinion as to Holliman”s guilt or innocence.
Under cross examination from Allgood, Gerhart said the demographic he speaks with most are white people over the age of 55.
Smith, who serves as attorney to the Caledonia Board of Aldermen as well as several other public boards, says he never brings up Holliman”s case when speaking to constituents. However, as a state representative and lawyer, he says enough people have raised the issue with him to suggest a pervasive public judgment.
“I hear it a lot. More than I want to,” said Smith.
“I disagree with (the defense”s claim of) who has their finger on the pulse of the community,” said Allgood. “Is it a representative who spends much of his time in Jackson? Is it a mayor who confesses to be friends with the family?”
Both Gerhart and Smith said they”ve received sharp criticism from the public regarding their decision to sign affidavits asking that Holliman”s trial be moved.
“I haven”t been criticized. I”ve been crucified,” said Gerhart.
Smith said he”s received so much criticism that he wouldn”t have appeared at Tuesday”s hearing if he hadn”t been subpoenaed.
“A lot of people criticize me for what I”ve done. I think it”s important for public officials to step forward when asked to speak. I think I”m doing the right thing this morning,” said Smith.
Both officials say they would sign the affidavits again if asked.
Holliman”s trial is currently scheduled for Nov. 30 in Lowndes County Circuit Court.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.