A chance observation made Sunday afternoon has led to a months’ long delay in the trial of five people accused of killing a minister who, while aiding a reported rape victim, was blamed for her assault.
Columbus attorney Stacey Jackson, who represents Jody Perry Jr. in the 2011 homicide of Blanchard Thomas, said he was talking to Perry’s family Sunday about his client’s prior convictions. While noting Perry in 2006 was charged with possessing drugs and obstructing police, a relative found it curious that Chief Assistant District Attorney Al Whitaker was now Perry’s prosecutor, as Whitaker had been Perry’s defense attorney then.
Come Monday, the day Perry and his four co-defendants were to go on trial for Thomas’ homicide, Jackson filed a motion to disqualify Whitaker because of the conflict created by the prosecutor’s having once defended the defendant.
Rumer agreed with Jackson, and disqualified Whitaker. The district attorney’s office initially said it would appeal that decision, but determined Tuesday that by law it could not. So Rumer’s ruling stands, and the district attorney now has to assign a new prosecutor to the case, and build what lawyers call a “Chinese wall” around it to ensure Whitaker never touches it again.
To preclude any appearance of a conflict, all of Whitaker’s personal notes must be removed from the case file, which will now be marked with a lavender-colored folder warning office staff that access to it is restricted, said District Attorney Julia Slater. Whitaker cannot assist the new prosecutor, nor even discuss the case, Slater said.
To give her staff time to catch up, Rumer has postponed the trial and set a “status conference” for 4 p.m. June 26, during which a new trial date may be discussed.
Jackson and the other defense attorneys agreed with the new schedule, though Michael Garner, who represents Joel Thomas Jr., told Rumer he already has filed one motion for a speedy trial on behalf of his client, and was about to file another when the case finally was set for trial. Garner said he hoped the delay would be only four months or so and not six or more.
Besides Perry and Joel Thomas, who is not related to the victim, the defendants are Michael Ingram, Keedra Brummitt and Donnie Forte. Each is charged with three counts of murder and one each of kidnapping, armed robbery, and using a firearm to commit a crime.
Ingram and Brummitt are expected to testify for the prosecution, but on Tuesday, Jackson noted that could change if the delay drags on, as they may re-evaluate their positions.
Blanchard Thomas, 44, was the pastor of the Mt. Missouri Baptist Church in Pittsview, Ala. On March 8, 2011, he gave a girl a ride from Russell County, where she claimed she had been sexually assaulted. When he dropped her off at a home north of the Booker T. Washington Apartments, Ingram, Forte and Joel Thomas got into the minister’s vehicle and had him drive them to Broadway while Brummitt and Perry followed in Brummitt’s car, police said.
At the dead end of Broadway under the Oglethorpe Bridge, passers-by found Blanchard Thomas slumped in the vehicle around 4:20 p.m. that day. He had been shot in the right cheek and left to die.
What Jackson discovered after Perry’s family brought it to his attention was that on Dec. 23, 2005, Perry was charged with possessing cocaine and less than an ounce of marijuana; possessing a firearm during the commission of a crime; and obstructing police by running from officers.
When arrested for drugs, Perry was found to have a Bryco handgun on him, which led to the weapons charge, according to court records.
On Feb. 23, 2006, Whitaker filed notice he would represent Perry, and the outcome indicates Perry was not poorly served: Whitaker arranged a plea bargain, and a month later, Perry pleaded guilty only to the misdemeanor obstruction and marijuana charges. The other two counts were dead-docketed, meaning they would not be prosecuted. Perry was sentenced to a year in jail.
Whitaker became chief assistant district attorney when Slater took office in 2009.