Separate murder trials set in death of sheriff

Saturday, October 30th 2004, 3:55 pm
By: News On 6

PAWNEE, Okla. (AP) _ Separate trials have been scheduled for two men who face the death penalty if they are convicted of shooting Pawnee County's sheriff to death.

A judge Friday ordered James C. Taylor, 37, to go to trial on June 6 and Justin Lee Walker, 26, to go to trial July 11. But no decision has been made on where the trials will be held.

Defense attorneys argued that pretrial publicity about the Oct. 13, 2001, murder of Sheriff Dwight Woodrell Jr. made it impossible to find an impartial jury in Pawnee County.

Taylor's lawyer, Wayne Woodyard, said publicity was intense in Pawnee and Cleveland, the county's two biggest cities from which most of the prospective jurors would come, making it unlikely that objective jurors could be found.

He also referred to a memorial highway bearing Woodrell's name between Pawnee and Cleveland and a memorial to Woodrell on the south side of the Pawnee County Courthouse as prejudicial reminders to prospective jurors.

Woodrell was killed while investigating suspicious activity at the Spess Drilling Co. west of Cleveland. He lived south of Cleveland.

Taylor and Walker are charged with first-degree murder in the case. Another hearing is scheduled Nov. 5.

Walker's lawyer, Rob Nigh, agreed that the death of an elected official complicates the ability to find impartial jurors from the county's small juror pool.

Assistant District Attorney Rene Henry said the fact that jurors knew the victim of a crime is insufficient grounds to move the trial. Henry also said most of the publicity was from Tulsa and Oklahoma City media.

Henry conceded that local residents had an intense interest in the crime, but the defense failed to show that such interest was prejudicial.

``I concede people here want to see the killers punished, but there's not a rush to judgment,'' Henry said. State law says residents are entitled to have a crime settled in the county where the crime occurred, henry said.

Woodyard said law enforcement officials had asked for public help in the investigation and in fund-raising for Woodrell's family and monument. Many also contributed to Woodrell's political campaign, he said.

Such pleas to the public makes the community involved in the case, Woodyard said. And asking the public now to be objective at trial ``hangs a cloud over this case,'' he said.