A Calhoun County judge Tuesday set 2018 trial dates for two capital murder cases, but acknowledged those dates are goals that could change.
“We have 13 pending murder and capital murder cases scheduled to be tried January through December of next year,” Circuit Judge Debra Jones said Tuesday morning during a hearing.
Attorney David Johnston and Nancy Vernon, representing Vonta McClellan, met with Jones during a status conference Tuesday morning. McClellan, 30, was charged with capital murder in connection with the 2013 death of 5-year-old Gregory Caver. Prosecutors have said Caver was beaten with a belt — which caused blunt-force trauma, and ultimately his death — because he wet himself. McClellan’s then-girlfriend and the child’s mother, India Kimble, was also charged with capital murder.
Jones told Johnston and Vernon that she’d like the case to go to trial April 2, but the attorneys objected to that date, asking for more time.
“We have half of the mitigation team in place and we still need to discuss a forensic psychologist,” Johnston said of experts he’d need for the case. “We’ve also had some trouble with records at the Department of Youth Services being destroyed.”
Johnston instead asked if the case could be moved to the latter half of the year.
“I understand it’s been pending a while and we’ve been trying to resolve the case which has played a role in where this case is,” the attorney said. “I don’t think we can be ready in April. I’m sorry.”
Jones addressed each of Johnston’s concerns about meeting the April date.
“Anything you need, any expense, all of that will be granted,” Jones said.
Johnston argued the destroyed records could be vital information for a mitigation expert who would be charged with providing background information such as family and criminal history to a jury before they make a sentencing recommendation, should McClellan be convicted. Calhoun County Chief Assistant District Attorney Lynn Hammond said Tuesday that prosecutors will seek the death penalty in the case.
“They maintain their records and destroy them when they see fit,” Jones said of the Department of Youth Services. “I’ve run into this in another capital case. Those things are there or they’re not. That’s not a reason to delay a jury trial.”
“I understand the court’s position and I can appreciate the state’s positions,” Johnston responded. “I don’t want to mislead the court. I want to be candid. We will work as hard as we can but I will be filing a motion to continue the case so we can be effective advocates for Mr. McClellan. I’m just being honest.”
Jones asked if more time to prepare would do the case any good.
“If five years is not enough to get ready for this case, I don’t know when will be enough,” she said. “I’m going to keep it set for April. Let’s just get it done. You will have the money you need. This is going to have to take priority.”
In a separate hearing, Jones met with attorney Shaun Quinlan, representing Kerodjae Qyfon Loveberry, to also set a trial date. Loveberry, 23, is charged with capital murder in the 2014 deaths of Cordeira Romye Maxwell, 24, of Ohatchee, and Misty Renea Lopez, 23, of Oxford.
On Tuesday, Jones told Quinlan she would set the case for trial Nov. 5 and asked the attorney if he had any requests.
“I’d like to ask you appoint Mr. Allen Meighan as co-counsel and allow me to hire Mr. Roy Bennett as an investigator,” Quinlan said.
Jones said Bennett, who retired from the Anniston Police Department, has a history of serving as a private investigator for defense attorneys.
“He’s certainly qualified to do that work and I’ll grant that request,” she said.
Jones also called Quinlan’s request to appoint Meighan as co-counsel on the case a wise choice.
“He meets the standard we require for a capital case and he does not appear to be on any of those other 12 murder or capital cases, so he would be wise choice,” the judge said.