Another county will hear case against accused child-killer
A once-convicted child killer will get a change of venue for his retrial, but it won’t be with residents from the same county that heard the first case.
Justin Blakeney, 35, was sentenced to death in July 2014 after a Greene County jury found him guilty of killing his then-girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter Victoria Viner in 2010. But the state Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the case is being tried again.
On Tuesday, District Attorney Tony Buckley and Blakeney’s attorney Bill LaBarre of the Jackson-based Office of Capital Defense, appeared before Judge Dal Williamson in Jones County Circuit Court in Ellisville for motion hearings.
A change of venue was granted by then-Judge Billy Joe Landrum for the first trial, so a change is being granted for the retrial.
“Case law supports that,” Williamson said.
But LaBarre doesn’t want Greene Countians to hear the case this time. Almost one-third of the 125 people in the jury pool had heard about the case when attorneys went there to pick jurors almost five years ago, he said.
Williamson asked if that was part of WDAM’s coverage area.
“It is,” LaBarre said, but a cameraman from the station refuted that.
LaBarre said the circuit clerk he talked to in Leakesville said WDAM was the NBC affiliate on a cable provider there.
“I’d like to not take that chance,” LaBarre said. “It needs to be farther away.”
Some Greene Countians knew about the case because of “The Laurel Leader-Call … and there was so much on social media,” Blakeney blurted out.
Buckley said he didn’t want to help make a “strong case for another reversal,” so he didn’t object to the judge looking to get jurors from a county that’s farther away.
“My inclination is to pick another county,” Williamson said.
Picking the county that will hear the case is the judge’s decision, but he did ask the attorneys to submit several that they agree could give the defendant a fair trial. Williamson will then try to find one where he and other court officials can go in April to begin the jury-selection process. The trial is tentatively set for some time in July. Jurors will be bused to Jones County and housed in a hotel while they’re here to hear the case, just like the last trial.
Buckley said he will be seeking life without parole, not the death penalty.
“It’s still a capital case,” he said, “and the jury will still be sequestered because of the heightened scrutiny.”
The state Supreme Court reversed Blakeney’s conviction and remanded the case back to the circuit court. The most significant error in the prosecution, according to the decision, was the use of evidence — including a confession — that was obtained through the state’s use of “jailhouse snitches.” The case was prosecuted by then-Assistant District Attorney J. Ronald Parrish.
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 is now in segregated, protective custody in the Jones County Adult Detention Center awaiting trial. The original date for his retrial was set for Oct. 1, but LaBarre asked for and was granted a continuance.
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 Victoria 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 earlier ruling.
Benton testified that the toddler, who was the daughter of Blakeney’s girlfriend Lydia Viner, had injuries to both sides of her brain that were consistent with “severe trauma.”