Heath Jackson homicide: Judge denies defense motion to quash indictment

The first attack on the capital murder case against Ricardo Strozier failed Wednesday when Judge Gil McBride denied a defense motion to quash Strozier's indictment in Columbus radio disc jockey Heath Jackson's 2010 homicide.

Defense attorneys H. Burton Baker and Melinda Ryals argued the grand jury pool from which the panel indicting Strozier was drawn lacked demographics proportionate to the overall population of Muscogee County.

Jury pools that deviate too widely from the percentage of ethnic groups within a county's general population can be ruled a violation of a defendant's rights to due process and equal protection under the law. But courts have ruled the deviation must be off by 10 percent or more to be unconstitutional, though a deviation of no more than 5 percent is preferred.

Strozier's defense team argued the Muscogee County jury commission "force-balanced" the grand jury pool by adding names from voter rolls and driver's license records to make its composition match the 2000 census in the percentage of men, women, whites, blacks and the racial group "other" that encompassed Asians and Hispanics.

Ryals told McBride the jury commissioners should have relied on 2010 census data for their percentages, and they should have drawn the jury pool randomly from a state database of potential jurors that became available July 1, 2012. Strozier was indicted days later.

District Attorney Julia Slater countered the commissioners had to rely on 10-year census data and the 2000 census was all they had at the time. Testimony showed Muscogee County did not start using the state database of potential jurors until last October.

In his ruling Wednesday morning, McBride cited Georgia Supreme Court precedents such as Morrow v. State, in which the justices wrote. "As a general proposition, absolute disparities under 10 percent usually are sufficient to satisfy constitutional requirements."

The judge noted that no deviation in ethnic percentages in the grand jury pool exceeded even 1 percent of the 2000 census figures, and the courts have upheld the most recently available census as a reliable and legal measure for jury commissioners to use.

Moving on

After that, the attorneys moved on to other defense motions, many of them routine, that McBride hopes to have settled by the time Strozier goes to trial. Baker has filed 125 separate motions, and by the time court adjourned Wednesday after three days of proceedings, attorneys had settled only 22.

McBride will start hearing pretrial motions for three more days starting Feb. 20.

A key issue for Baker is preventing any prejudice that might result from potential jurors' seeing the security measures in place at Strozier's hearings.

Baker protested Strozier's being guarded by three burly, uniformed deputies, saying it gives the impression his client is dangerous.

McBride said that during pretrial hearings TV and newspaper photographers should not photograph Strozier when his ankles are shackled or while he's surrounded by deputies. The judge also told camera operators not to photograph families of the victim or defendant.

Baker said he also did not want uniformed law enforcement officers sitting in the audience for Strozier's trial. That would have "a chilling effect on Mr. Strozier's rights and presumption of innocence," the attorney said. Prosecutors did not object to that restriction.

When Baker asked that the deputies guarding Strozier not wear uniforms but civilian dress clothes, Muscogee County Sheriff's Maj. Mike Massey noted the officers with their weapons and other gear were needed not only to keep Strozier in custody, but to also protect him.

The Sheriff's Office, which is in charge of courtroom security, has had to subdue vengeance-seekers coming from the audience, Massey said, so deputies have to be prepared for that, too.

McBride asked that attorneys from both sides review courtroom security measures before he holds another hearing on that issue.

That's to be the first matter addressed at 9 a.m. Feb. 20, when McBride resumes hearing the defense team's 125 pretrial motions.

Strozier's is the first case in which Slater has sought the death penalty since she first took office in 2009. He is charged not only in Jackson's fatal Sept. 7, 2010, shooting at 1667 Carter Ave. -- where the DJ for Christian contemporary station The Truth came home at lunch to find an intruder in his house -- but for two other break-ins leading up to that.

Strozier is charged with murder, aggravated battery, three counts of burglary and two each of armed robbery and using a firearm to commit a felony.