Stafford, Greenhouse murder trials postponed

Judge rules Police Jury does not have to pay for expert witnesses
With funding for two expert witnesses “up in the air,” the murder trial of Derrick Stafford was rescheduled to March 13, 2017 -- once again bumping co-defendant Norris Greenhouse Jr.’s court date, this time to June 12.
    That was just one of several actions by 12th Judicial District Judge Billy Bennett Nov. 7 in what is undeniably the parish’s most notorious case in recent memory. 
    Stafford was scheduled to go to trial Nov. 28 for the fatal shooting of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis. 
   Stafford and Greenhouse were serving as Ward 2/Marksville City Marshal deputies when they pursued Chris Few for an alleged traffic violation on the night of Nov. 3, 2015. When Few was hemmed in at a dead end on Martin Luther King Street in Marksville, the two officers fired into the stopped vehicle. Few was critically wounded and his son, who was seatbelted in the front passenger seat, was killed.
   Investigators reported 18 shots were fired -- 14 from Stafford’s pistol and four from Greenhouse’s. No shots were fired by two other officers who were also at the scene. Forensic tests show that four of the five bullets that struck the child were fired from Stafford’s weapon. The fifth bullet could not be positively identified to either weapon.
   Because forensic tests found that officers Jason Brouillette and Kenneth Parnell did not fire their weapons during the incident, the two men presented a written request during the hearing that their firearms be returned.
    Stafford’s attorney, Jonathan Goins, told Bennett he had no objection. Prosecutor John Sinquiefield said the state has completed all necessary tests, but would ask only that the officers retain possession of the weapons “just in case” a question arises during trial. George Higgins III, attorney for Greenhouse, said he needed to review information but would let the court know on or before Nov. 18 whether he objects to returning the firearms to the two officers.
Issue of ‘indigence’
    Bennett said Stafford is indigent and is entitled to public funds to pay for two expert witnesses in his murder trial. What is not known is where he will get the public funds for those witnesses.
   There was considerable debate concerning whether Stafford fits the state’s criteria for financial assistance through the Indigent Defender Program because he is allegedly “indigent” but represented by private counsel, not a public defender.
    State law clearly provides the IDB has responsibility to provide an adequate defense -- including paying for expert witnesses -- for accused persons unable to pay for private counsel. The question posed during the hearing was whether the IDB would be required to pay for an indigent defendant who was not a client of the IDB.
    That question then led to the one noting that if the IDB says they are not required to pay for Stafford’s defense costs, what agency would be responsible?
    “If we had the money approved for those experts today, they would not have time to be adequately prepared for trial” on Nov. 28, Bennett said. “And we do not have the money today.”
PJ off the hook
    While Bennett will still be fishing for a government agency to pay the court-ordered costs for Stafford’s expert witnesses, the Avoyelles Police Jury was let off the hook.
   Bennett reversed his decision that the Police Jury should pay for those witnesses, ruling that the state law that speaks of a parish’s responsibility to pay the expenses of witnesses does not include expert witnesses. 
   The parish’s financial duty concerning an indigent defendant’s witnesses is limited to the cost of serving subpoenas on witnesses and any costs involved in getting them to court, such as mileage expenses, Bennett decided after hearing arguments in the two-hour hearing.
   Bennett said state law places the burden of providing essential witnesses for indigent defendants on the state, but does not indicate what agency of the state should pay those costs.
  Bennett also reversed his previous denial of Stafford’s request for a use-of-force expert. He met in private with Stafford’s attorneys for about 30 minutes to discuss the matter. Upon reconvening the hearing, Bennett said the attorneys provided necessary documentation to show the expert is important to Stafford’s defense.
   The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal sent the denial back to Bennett with a request that he conduct a hearing on the matter.
   Bennett will send an order to pay for Stafford’s incident scene reconstruction expert and use-of-force expert to the state, but is not sure which agency will eventually be called upon to pay the bill.