The retrial for accused child-killer Justin Blakeney will be in Neshoba County starting Sept. 9, according to an order signed by Jones County Circuit Court Judge Dal Williamson.
Blakeney, now 35, was found guilty of capital murder in the death of 2-year-old Victoria Viner, his girlfriend’s daughter. A Greene County jury came to Jones County to hear the case in July 2014 and sentenced him to death. But the state Supreme Court reversed the conviction in November 2017 and remanded the case back to Jones County Circuit Court for retrial.
Blakeney’s attorney Bill LaBarre of the Office of Capital Defense in Jackson filed a motion for the change of venue for the retrial, just as he did in the first trial. But he didn’t want Greene County to be considered again.
“(Blakeney) is unable to receive a fair trial before an impartial jury in Jones County or in Greene County due to adverse media/publicity and talk in the community about the case,” LaBarre wrote.
In the order to move the retrial to Philadelphia, the judge wrote, “The Court does note that there has been ‘saturation of media publicity’ and ‘pervasive exposure’ regarding this case.”
The order noted that District Attorney Tony Buckley will not seek the death penalty this time. Last April, Buckley said that he did intend to seek the death penalty.
Buckley said that decision was made so there would be a better chance of bringing the nearly-10-year-old case to a close.
“When you seek the death penalty, there just isn’t any finality, as the case is examined on appeal on the standard of heightened scrutiny,” he said. “It’s far more expensive to pursue and we may be back here again eight years from now.”
Jurors will not be sequestered during the trial because that was “not requested or required,” according to the order.
The circuit clerk of Neshoba County was asked to draw at least 400 names of prospective jurors and issue summons for them to be at the courthouse in Philadelphia at 8 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 9. All fees will be billed to and paid by Jones County, according to the order.
The most significant error in the prosecution, according to the Supreme Court decision, was the use of evidence — including a confession — that was obtained through the state’s use of “jailhouse snitches.”
Two members of the Aryan Brotherhood testified and had evidence that Blakeney admitted to killing the half-Mexican toddler and used that as a means to become a member of the powerful, all-white prison gang.
Blakeney was sentenced to death by the jury and had been serving his time on Death Row in Parchman, but he has been in segregated, protective custody in the Jones County Adult Detention Center since December 2017.
Many of the same expert witnesses and medical evidence will be back for Blakeney retrial, but there will be some new faces on the front lines. Buckley will be prosecuting the case instead of ex-Assistant District Attorney J. Ronald Parrish, who has since retired. And Williamson will be presiding after unseating longtime Judge Billy Joe Landrum. LaBarre and Jones County public defender John Piazza will still be representing Blakeney.
Parrish took issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling. He said the snitches approached the DA’s office saying they had information about the case.
“I told them that they were criminals, so their word wasn’t good enough … they had to bring me proof,” Parrish said.
But by doing that, they became “state agents,” according to the high court. Parrish argued that is common practice in criminal investigations. He also pointed out that Blakeney was charged and indicted on medical evidence alone.
Dr. Scott Benton, an expert witness in child abuse pediatrics, examined the toddler and determined that she “could not have sustained a fatal head injury from a trip and fall as described by the defendant,” Williamson wrote in an order denying bond last September.
Benton testified that the toddler had injuries to both sides of her brain that were consistent with “severe trauma.” The little girl’s mother, Lydia Viner, was reportedly in the country illegally at the time of her daughter’s death in August 2010. The following December, Blakeney was indicted for capital murder and Viner pleaded guilty to negligence and deported back to Mexico.