Judge declares mistrial in murder trial after jury hears audience remarks
Trial reset for April 2017
TRENTON Aug. 23 – Circuit Court Judge Clayburn Peeples today granted a motion from state prosecutors for a mistrial in the first degree murder charge against Jerry Heavner of Milan.
The trial was reset for April 5, 2017.
Mr. Heavner, 69, is charged in the shooting death of James Ray Cannon on Dec. 10, 2013 just outside of Milan in the Flowers Subdivision.
In testimony today, attorneys said law enforcement officers who responded to the emergency call asked Heavner why he shot Cannon, age 58. “I shot him because he’s an xxxhole,” was Heavner’s response at the scene, according to attorneys. Heavner is pleading self-defense. Heavner’s attorney, Tim Crocker said his client was attacked by Cannon.
Judge Peeples said jurors were distracted by the reactions of family members seated in the courtroom to statements of attorneys. Jurors said they couldn’t hear the attorneys, because of a stream of comments by family members who were close to the jury box. Family members apparently indicated their disagreement with some comments made by Tim Crocker, the attorney for Mr. Heavner.
A juror reportedly talked to a courtroom law enforcement officer about the distractions caused by the audience. Attorneys conferred privately with Judge Peeples. He returned to the courtroom and granted the motion for mistrial.
“I apologize for the fact that due to circumstances beyond any of the court personnel to control, I’m having to declare a mistrial in this case, due to inappropriate communications, not between the jury and anyone, but directed at the jury,” said Judge Peeples. “I apologize for the fact that that happened. I want to tell you how much I appreciate the dignified and professional way it was handled by people on the jury. And I want to tell you how much we appreciate your service.”
The trial will be reset to be tried by another jury.
Peeples also issued a warning to the courtroom audience of about 25 people.
“There’s never an excuse or justification for members of the audience to make comments about the lawyers’ statements or witnesses,” said Judge Peeples. “According to the jury, that was done repeatedly. I’m telling everybody, when this case comes back up, you can be sure, anybody who makes any sort of statement in response to anything that is said, will be removed from the courtroom and placed in jail.”
“I liked the way it was going,” said Mr. Crocker after the declaration of mistrial. “We were prepared to try this case. Mr. Heavner is ready to get out of the legal system.”
Judge Peeples said mistrials are rare, happening about once every 5 years. Asst. District Attorney Jason Scott said he’d experienced two mistrials in 38 cases.
In the morning, the jury selection process took two and one half hours to complete. 24 jurors whose names were called were dismissed during five challenges made by the legal teams.
Shortly before the mistrial was declared, the prosecution team of Jason Scott and Hillary Parham proposed that an eyewitness to the shooting, James Mitchell, be declared a hostile witness, because he had given testimonies at different times that had inconsistencies. Judge Peeples did not seem sympathetic to the idea of declaring Mitchell as hostile.
Prosecuting attorneys then said Mitchell would be impeached as a witness, which would mean the credibility of his testimony would be challenged because of inconsistent statements.
Defense attorney Tim Crocker, in his opening statement, told the jury they would hear about inconsistencies in testimonies from witnesses.
Mr. Crocker said, however, that there was consistency in the accounts from Mitchell and Heavner that Mr. Heavner was attacked by Cannon before he shot Cannon.
“It was a horrible occurrence, but it was not a crime,” said Crocker