|By Billy Davis
A Panola County murder trial aired throughout the day last Friday on Court TV, giving viewers a condensed version of the four-day trial mixed with analysis and interviews.
A Panola County circuit jury last month found Demetrius Smith, 27, guilty of kidnapping and drowning Carnesha Nelson, 20.
Nelson, an Ole Miss student from Moss Point, was kidnapped from her Oxford apartment on Thursday, May 27, 2004. Her body was found in Sardis Lake two days later, her hands bound by a cell phone charger cord.
Smith, who is from Quitman County, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday, September 29, at the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville.
District Attorney John Champion did not seek the death penalty against Smith, a decision that sets up an automatic life sentence without parole.
The daytime trial footage progressed Friday in five-minute courtroom segments and studio analysis by anchors and legal experts. The trial began airing at 8 a.m. C.S.T. and continued through 4 p.m.
"I thought Court TV did a good job, a classy job, of presenting the case," said Champion, who watched portions of the afternoon airing.
Champion was aided in court by Assistant District Attorney Rhonda Amis of Batesville and Lafayette County District Attorney Ben Creekmore.
Public defender Clay Vanderburg represented Smith in the case.
In the early "Open Court" segment of the trial, television viewers witnessed the testimony of Tara Tavaris, a neighbor of Nelson’s in The Cove Apartments in Oxford.
Tavaris testified that Nelson begged for help, nearly ripping the chain from her apartment door as she tried to escape from an unnamed rapist.
Tavaris didn’t let Nelson in, instead dialing 9-1-1 and telling police what she had witnessed.
"I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do," Tavaris told jurors.
After that segment aired, a three-person Court TV panel disagreed over whether Tavaris should have let Nelson into her apartment.
"I think she should have let her in," said analyst Deborah Robinson, whose opinion was seconded by defense attorney David McGruder.
"Open Court" anchor Lisa Bloom disagreed, noting that Tavaris had just seconds to decide what to do when confronted with Nelson’s plea for help.
"I honestly don’t think we can second guess her," said Bloom, who anchored the first two hours of
During her "Trial Heat" show that aired two hours into the trial, Court TV anchor Jami Floyd touched on the racial issue of the trial, saying she was impressed by law enforcement’s intense investigation of a murdered black woman.
Along with viewers, Floyd had been watching the trial testimony of Lt. Alan Thompson of the Miss. Bureau of Investigations, who had been testifying for the prosecution.
Thompson’s agency had worked the murder case alongside the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, the Oxford Police Department, and the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department.
"I take my hat off to the state of Mississippi," said Floyd, who is black, as she looked into the camera.
Panola sheriff’s investigator Mark Whitten, who was a trial witness for the prosecution, talked live to Floyd in a 10-minute exchange that began at 11:30 a.m.
Whitten spoke from the investigators’ office at the sheriff’s department, where a TV near his desk tuned to Court TV showed him on the witness stand examining the cell phone cord.
The TV also beamed a sickly crackling noise when a bad phone connection between Whitten and Floyd cut short the first attempt at an interview.
Once the pair was reconnected, Floyd grilled Whitten about a "rush to judgement" to finger Smith for the crime over several other suspects.
"We interviewed seven to eight other males and each of them was able to provide an alibi, everyone except Smith," Whitten calmly replied.
Floyd concluded the interview by thanking Whitten and other investigators for the scope of the investigation, saying that black victims of violent crime are often overlooked by law enforcement officials.
"That clearly was not the case here," Floyd said.
As he waited on the phone for the live interview, Whitten told a Court TV producer that the television pundits were incorrectly referring to him as "Sheriff Whitten" instead of his proper title, "lead investigator."
"I’m not the elected sheriff," said the investigator, who instead is one of 11 candidates seeking the office.
The miscommunication was still apparent when Whitten went live on the air. Floyd told the investigator a "pretty intense debate" was raging over his proper title (or more likely over who was in trouble at Court TV for passing along the wrong title).
Reached Monday morning, Champion said he watched portions of the afternoon airing after wrapping up a morning trial in Charleston.
The state had rested its case by early afternoon, but the district attorney did get to watch his cross-examination of Smith.
"My goal in the cross-examination was to get the jury to see what he really was," Champion said. "He was a con man. He thought he would be able to charm the jury."