A Lee County Circuit Court judge has denied accused killer Courtney Lockhart’s motion for a change of venue, saying that Lockhart’s attorneys have not proved that their client is unable to get a fair trial there.
Lockhart is charged with capital murder in connection with the death of Lauren Burk, an 18-year-old Auburn University freshman found lying along a state highway with a gunshot wound in March 2008.
Lockhart’s attorneys have argued that because of extensive pretrial publicity, he would not be able to receive a fair trial in Lee County.
Judge Jacob A. Walker’s April 14 ruling cites Cherry v. State, a 2004 case that is considered the standard for ruling on change of venue motions. According to Walker, the ruling cites two scenarios that can warrant a venue change: when the defendant can show “actual prejudice” against him by jurors or when there’s “presumed prejudice” from pretrial publicity that makes it impossible to get an impartial jury.
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Cherry v. State also spells out the standard for finding presumed prejudice: that the pretrial publicity was prejudicial and inflammatory and that the publicity “saturated” the area, Walker states.
“The defendant has not met the first prong of the Cherry test for presumed prejudice, which required that the pretrial publicity be ‘prejudicial and inflammatory,’” the ruling said. “The articles regarding this case which were printed in the newspaper and submitted as exhibits to defendant’s motion are not generally editorial or opinion-based. There are, however, public comments attached to many of the on-line articles. The attached public commentary is at times inflammatory, but the defendant has not shown that the internet commentary has been so prejudicial as to deny him a fair jury trial.”
The judge also said Lockhart hadn’t proved that any of the inflammatory comments were either posted or read by residents of Lee County.
If they were made by Lee County residents, nothing shows how many of them posted or read the comments.
In addition, the judge said most comments were made before Lockhart’s arrest.
“There is a significant drop-off in commentary through time, with minor increases near the anniversary of the victim’s death,” Walker said.
Burk of Marietta, Ga., had a gunshot wound when she was found lying in the roadway of Ala. 147 between Lee Road 72 and U.S. 280. She died at the East Alabama Medical Center. Police later found her black 2001 Honda Civic burning in Auburn’s Hinton Field parking lot.
Authorities said Lockhart, who was 23 at the time, had a handgun when he forced Burk into her car, made her drive around and disrobe, then robbed her, shot her and left her to die.