Making his first appearance in a Columbus courtroom since being captured in the Caribbean islands almost a year ago, Michael Jason Registe sat quietly Friday in Superior Court as the status of his defense attorney was argued before Judge Doug Pullen.
Registe, who made it on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list in connection with a 2007 double homicide at a local apartment complex, is being represented by Stacey Jackson, a former Muscogee County assistant district attorney.
Special prosecutor Laura Murphree has asked the court to remove Jackson as Registe’s counsel because Jackson was involved in the case in early 2008, while Registe was still a fugitive.
Pullen delayed a ruling until the court can hear from Deputy U.S. Marshal Patrick Ferguson, whom Jackson dealt with on search warrants issued on Registe’s sister Monica Registe.
Ferguson is on military leave and was unavailable.
Pullen instructed Jackson to “meditate” about his continued involvement in the case.
“Mr. Jackson, I want you to envision yourself in a courthouse with 12 jurors and three alternates,” Pullen said. “You are in a motel ... your client is in the common jail of the county we are in. Then Mr. Ferguson’s on the stand, and the answer comes up that you were involved in getting him here. What is that jury going to think? I want you to meditate on that.”
Jackson, who spent eight years as a prosecutor, was represented by his law partner Richard Hagler.
After the hearing, Hagler said Pullen was planting a seed for Jackson.
“I think what he was saying was ‘even if I rule in your favor, are you sure you want to do it?’” Hagler said.
Registe, 26, is accused of the July 20, 2007, execution-style deaths of Randy Newton Jr., 21, and Bryan Kilgore, 20, in Columbus. After fleeing the country, he was captured Aug. 27 in St. Maarten.
Registe was returned to Columbus on July 24 after fighting extradition for almost a year.
He remains in the Columbus jail under no bond.
The case drew national attention, with Registe making the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, and it was featured on the popular television show “America’s Most Wanted.”
Friday’s 1 hour and 15 minute hearing dealt solely with Jackson’s status on the case. Registe was led into the 10th-floor Government Center courtroom about 10 minutes before the hearing started. There were at least nine uniformed Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office deputies in the courtroom with Registe. His hands were not cuffed, but he wore chains around his ankles.
Several members of the victims’ families sat in the courtroom and met briefly with Murphree after the hearing.
At least three local news media outlets, including the Ledger-Enquirer, requested to have cameras in the courtroom, but Pullen denied the request moments before the hearing started.
The testimony focused on Jackson’s involvement in the case. At the time of the murders, he was a lead prosecutor in charge of one of two trial teams in the District Attorney’s office.
Chris Samra, an investigator with the District Attorney’s office, testified for the prosecution.
“We talked about aspects of the crime, what happened, the fact that Mr. Registe did run and his sister purchased a plane ticket,” Samra said.
The investigator testified that Jackson told him recently that he would not represent Registe “because he had done work on the case.”
The work Jackson did, according to testimony, was limited to helping Ferguson and the U.S. Marshal’s office secure search warrants for phone and credit card records for Monica Registe.
“My recollection is Mr. Ferguson and I did not discuss any intimate details,” Jackson said when questioned by the court.Jackson has filed a change of venue motion with the court. That motion will not be heard until the matter of Jackson’s representation of Registe is settled.
Pullen made a brief comment about a possible change of venue, which would relocate the trial to another Georgia county.
“This is a case I don’t think we can try in this county,” Pullen said. “Most folks are convinced he’s guilty. But they don’t know why because the facts have not been publicized. What has been publicized is the flight pattern.”