Headlines – 8/26/2005

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 26, 2005

The Panolian: HEADLINES – August 26, 2005

  From the 8/26/05 issue of The Panolian :                    

Verdict ‘guilty’ in Smith trial
     Panola County Deputy Eric "Buck" Harris accompanies defendant Demetrius Smith into the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville as Smith’s murder trial got underway on Monday. Thursday afternoon the jury returned a verdict of guilty.
    
By Billy Davis

A Panola County circuit jury agreed Thursday that dormitory receptionist Demetrius Smith raped and kidnapped Ole Miss student Carnesha Nelson, later drowning her in the waters of Sardis Lake.

The jury verdict came after four and a half days of testimony in which witnesses for the prosecution described a gruesome death at the hands of Smith, beginning with his kidnapping of Nelson at her Oxford apartment.

Smith, 27, is from Lambert and served in the U.S. Navy.

Nelson was from Moss Point. She would have turned 20 on May 27, 2004, the day two fishermen found her body near Engineer’s Point, her hands bound with a cell phone cord.

Smith and Nelson knew each other through Smith’s job as a desk receptionist at Crosby Hall, a women’s dormitory on the Ole Miss campus.

The jury of 10 women and two men began deliberating at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and announced its verdict at about 3:40 p.m.

The state charged Smith with capital murder, contending that he committed the crime of murder while engaged in an act of kidnapping.

The state did not seek the death penalty against Smith, but he could receive a life term in prison without parole for the crime.

Circuit Judge Ann Lamar presided over the trial.

State forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne testified that Nelson died of a freshwater drowning, telling jurors the marks on the back of her neck suggested she was forced under the water.

Jurors also learned of Nelson’s ransacked apartment bedroom, watching a video tape that showed ripped window blinds, a twisted window screen and pieces of duct tape that were stuck to the bedding.

Panola County investigator Mark Whitten described the remainder of Nelson’s one-bedroom apartment as "immaculate," later holding up the twisted window frame to symbolize the fight that took place there.

The screen was found across the room when Whitten, Lt. Allen Thompson of the Miss. Bureau of Investigations and David Bryan, the late Panola County sheriff, entered the apartment on May 27.

Prior to this week’s trial, the state shipped the window screen and the entire window frame to an FBI lab in Virginia. An FBI expert testified on Wednesday that the screen had been removed by someone pushing it from the inside of the bedroom.
"I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that Carnesha wanted out of that bedroom," District Attorney John Champion told jurors in his closing arguments.

DNA evidence from the bed was matched with Smith, and a fingerprint lifted from the tape and examined by an FBI forensic expert matched the defendant as well.

Smith testified Wednesday on his own behalf, the last of four defense witnesses put on the stand by public defender Clay Vanderburg.

In questioning from Vanderburg, Smith said he went to Nelson’s apartment on May 25 and had sex with her, waving goodbye as he left and she talked on her cell phone.

In cross examination by Champion, however, Smith said he "had a plan" to have sex with Nelson, boasting later that he is good at charming women.

"I’ve never had no problem with having sex with women," Smith told Champion.

"So you’re some kind of stud?" Champion asked.

The defendant grinned back, sitting up straighter in the witness chair after Champion made the suggestion.

Other witnesses for the defense included Smith’s relatives and a girlfriend. They were put on the witness stand to provide an alibi but gave conflicting testimony.

In his closing arguments, Champion summarized the state’s case against Smith: he raped Nelson and then had to kill her to keep her quiet about the violent assault.

Smith gained entry into Nelson’s apartment, perhaps telling her he wanted to talk, Champion said, and then he raped her in her bedroom.

Now facing a rape charge, Champion said, Smith took the student from her apartment at knifepoint, driving her to Sardis Lake in her white SUV with her hands bound with her own phone cord. He then drowned her near the beach.

The state’s circumstantial evidence in the case included a knife found in Smith’s car, white sand found in the floorboard of Nelson’s SUV, a CD case that was removed from Nelson’s vehicle to Smith’s vehicle, Smith’s fingerprint on the tape and his DNA that was found in the bed.
    

Court TV tapes trial in Batesville
By Billy Davis

A three-man film crew from Court TV has been taping the Demetrius Smith murder trial this week for a future airing on the cable TV channel.

The crew includes a producer, an audio engineer and a camera man.

The circuit trial was held at the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville, where a jury found Smith guilty of kidnapping and killing Ole Miss student Carnesha Nelson.

In the trial, Smith was accused of kidnapping Nelson at knife-point at her Oxford apartment and taking her to Sardis Lake, where he drowned her in the upper lake and then fled.

Clay Vanderburg, Smith’s court-appointed attorney, produced Smith’s family members from Quitman County who provided an alibi for the defendant on the night of the murder.

When the four-day Smith trial airs, it will be shown in its entirety as part of the network’s daytime lineup, said Court TV spokesman Andie Silvers.

Court TV is headquartered in New York City.

A date for airing has not been set, Silvers said, though a trial typically airs a few months after it’s completed.

The Smith trial included over 50 prosecution exhibits, including a silver knife, a CD case that belonged to Nelson but was found in Smith’s car and a battered window screen from Nelson’s apartment.

Trial witnesses included Smith himself, FBI scientists, Panola County investigator Mark Whitten and Nelson’s father, Carmen Nelson.

Circuit Judge Ann Lamar presided over the murder trial.

Silvers said the pending trial caught the attention of Court TV’s trial tracking department, which researches upcoming trials across the country.

If the researchers consider an upcoming trial a worthwhile case, they recommend the proceedings to a committee meeting of upper-level executive and producers, Silvers said.

In the Batesville courtroom, Court TV camera man Joe Hoffman filmed witnesses during testimony, zoomed in on aerial photos that showed the apartment grounds and also showed Smith as he sat at the defense table, where he wore a shirt and tie.

The trial footage will presumably include a scene of investigator Whitten holding up the battered and bent window screen for jurors. The screen’s condition hinted at the brutality of the struggle between Smith and Nelson in her bedroom before her kidnapping.

The jury is not photographed during court proceedings.

Court TV audio engineer Marvin Strait sat behind Hoffman during the proceedings. Strait was tasked with stabilizing the sound quality in the cavernous courtroom.

Behind Hoffman and Strait sat producer Carl Libowitz, who used a Dell laptop to transcribe the witnesses’ testimony for future reference.

Libowitz also kept an eye on a floor monitor that showed him where Hoffman’s camera was trained.

In addition to filming the trial, the crew traveled to Sardis Lake and the Oxford apartments where Nelson lived, filming both locales for use in the TV program.

Although a Court TV crew came to Mississippi earlier this year for the Killen trial in Philadelphia, the three-man Panola crew was making its first trip into the state and the Deep South.

"Everybody says, ‘Hello’ and waves, and everybody says, ‘Y’all’ a lot," Strait observed. "I’ve never heard ‘y’all’ spoken so much."

"We know what Southern hospitality means because everybody’s been really nice to us," said Hoffman.

Reminded about the reputation Mississippi endures from the national media, Silvers said the Smith trial would focus on the brutal murder and the courtroom proceedings.

"This is a serious trial about the murder of a young woman," Silvers said. "We will cover it just as we would any other trial."

Silvers said she previously lived in Alabama and understood the concern about unflattering portrayals.
 

‘Zip’ roads to be closed on square
By Jason C. Mattox

Batesville’s mayor and board of aldermen are making plans to close one of the "zip" lanes and reroute traffic around the Downtown Square. The issue was discussed at length at a special called meeting of the mayor and board of aldermen on Monday.

Zip lanes are the roads running parallel and adjacent to the railroad tracks on the Downtown Square eventually joining Boothe Street at the Kelly Law Firm building and Thomas Street at Complete Computers.

Blake Mendrop, who represents the city’s engineering firm, McBride Engineering, addressed the board to explain plans for an upcoming pavement overlay project on the Square.

"When we originally started discussing this project, the plans called for us to simply mill and overlay the square and then do the striping," Mendrop said. "That didn’t include milling the parking areas."

Mendrop said he has come up with a working plan that would eliminate the lower zip lane.

"Before I go further, let me say I do believe closing the zip lanes is the right idea," he said.

Mendrop explained that the traffic would be rerouted around the Square.

"Closing the lanes will relieve some of the big truck traffic you have coming through the Square now," he said. "The only area to be concerned is whether or not it will cause congestion to reroute the traffic."

Mendrop said the future of the Square was up to the city leaders.

"The question is what do you want to see," he said. "Do you want to landscape it or do you want to mill and overlay it to use as overflow parking for events like SpringFest?"

Ward 3 Alderman James Yelton suggested that if the city did not mill the zip lanes, it would not be aesthetically pleasing.

"Plain and simple, if you don’t mill it, the project is not going to look right," he said. "I want us to pave it and close it."

Ward 4 Alderman Bobbie Jean Pounders said she was also in favor of paving the zip lanes and closing them.

"We have discussed closing them off and using them for skate and walk lanes," she said. "We have had a lot of kids skating around the Square, and this would give them a place to go."

Mendrop said the best way to handle it would be to remove parts of the curbs around the zip lanes and the center banks.

"That way it would open it up a little more," he said.

Yelton said doing as Mendrop suggested would mean more parking for those attending SpringFest.

City Street Superintendent Teddy Austin suggested using the short poles like those used at Memorial Park downtown.

"Those posts can be locked in with keys, but they can be moved to open up the areas for parking when you need it," he said. "It is also less expensive than putting down curbs."

The other area of concern for the engineers is the drainage problem on the square.

"We want to make sure we can get the water off the store fronts downtown," Mendrop said. "The drainage work we have discussed should help that problem tremendously."

Mendrop explained the engineers are looking for a way to not only resolve drainage issues on the square, but also in certain areas of Panola Avenue.

"[Lightsey’s Shoe Store] floods anytime there is a good rain," he said. "We want to find a way to keep that from happening again."

Mendrop also informed the board that signage around the Square would need to be addressed in the near future.

"Once we get this project finished, it will be important that signage is looked into," he said. "That needs to be the next problem you solve."

Final plans and figures for the project will be presented when the board meets Sept. 6.
    

Joint city/county meet on hospital underway
By Emily Darby

Tri-Lakes administrator Dr. Bob Corkern is seeking more time to finalize his purchase of the facility, and City of Batesville and Panola County officials were set to meet at 4 p.m. on Thursday to discuss the matter.

County Administrator David Chandler confirmed the meeting in a Thursday morning phone call.

"Dr. Corkern is asking for a 30-day extension," Chandler said, explaining that the financier of Corkern’s loan had requested the delay in a letter.

The final closing is set for September 2, 90 days after county and city officials signed a final purchase and sale agreement in June that would give the public-owned hospital to Corkern.
Corkern won over other bidders with a $25 million bid for the main facility and $3 million for the west campus – a behavioral clinic.

A call to Dr. Corkern’s Tri-Lakes office was not returned by press time.

Reached Thursday morning, Batesville Mayor Jerry Autrey said the hospital owners will meet with attorneys and hospital representatives.

"We want to make sure that everything’s on track, and if it isn’t on track, we’ll go from there," Autrey said.

Batesville Alderman Bobbie Jean Pounders said Thursday that Corkern’s request for an extension comes after he originally asked the owners for 180 days to close.

"He asked for 180 days’ preparation for this," Pounders said, adding that 90 days until closing was a "short time for a loan of this caliber."

A vocal supporter of Corkern’s bid for Tri-Lakes, Pounders was the first public official from the city or county to publicly endorse Corkern’s bid for Tri-Lakes over other bidders.

"I am for him getting the hospital," Pounders said Thursday. "Our community needs this hospital, and we need to make it the best we can."

Also on Thursday, Pounders acknowledged that she works at Tri-Lakes as a "physician’s consultant," a position she says is a volunteer role.

"I just help them out from time to time, not on a regular basis," Pounders said.

Asked if she intended to work at Tri-Lakes in the future, Pounders said she wouldn’t rule out working at the hospital since she has 50 years’ medical experience as a nurse.

At the June 2 meeting, Board of Supervisors President Jerry Perkins voiced skepticism that Corkern would produce the funds for the purchase.

Responding to Perkins’ words, then-Batesville Mayor Bobby Baker said the city and county were obligated to follow through on Corkern’s high bid for the the hospital.

"We may not have sold (the hospital) today, Jerry Perkins," Baker said, "but we are following the steps that I think we’ve got to follow."

The 4 p.m. meeting time on Thursday meant any action at the meeting took place hours past publication deadlines for the Friday, August 26 issue of The Panolian.

County supervisors had already planned to meet at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday to begin budget meetings.

A second budget meeting is also planned for 5:30 p.m. today at the courthouse in Batesville.
    

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