Heath Jackson murder trial: Guards say Ricardo Strozier exposed himself, punched another while in juvenile detention

While in Georgia’s Eastman Youth Detention Center in 2008, Ricardo Strozier exposed himself to a corrections officer and punched another detainee so hard the other juvenile needed hospital treatment, guards testified Wednesday during pretrial hearings for Strozier’s capital murder case.

As Strozier’s attorneys continued to argue Columbus’ tight courtroom security is causing their client prejudicial pretrial publicity by making him appear dangerous, prosecutors elicited the corrections officers’ testimony to show Strozier previously has misbehaved while in custody.

They did not say why Strozier, then 18, was in the Dodge County juvenile justice facility for youths age 17 to 20.

Strozier today faces multiple felony counts for three home break-ins, the last resulting in the fatal shooting of radio DJ David Heath Jackson on Sept. 7, 2010.

District Attorney Julia Slater is seeking the death penalty, alleging Strozier maliciously shot Jackson after the disc jockey caught Strozier in his 1667 Carter Ave. home.

One of the corrections officers from the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice testified she was monitoring security cameras in a control room in May 2008 when she saw Strozier, who on a work detail was cleaning a community room, unfasten his coveralls and expose his genitals. “This is the first time I’d ever seen him act like that,” she said. “I don’t know what brought it on.”

She said she notified a supervisor, and Strozier was placed on “pre-hearing confinement,” she said. She did not know if he ever faced any punishment beyond that.

The second juvenile justice officer said on Nov. 23, 2008, Strozier got into a scuffle with another “resident,” as each juvenile in custody was called. The other resident pushed Strozier, who punched him so hard in the jaw he had to go to the hospital. The second officer also did not know whether Strozier was punished beyond again being placed in pre-hearing confinement.

Under cross-examination from H. Burton Baker, Strozier’s attorney from the Georgia capital defender’s office, both officers acknowledged they knew of no other problems Strozier caused, and they never felt afraid of him.

Baker continued to press Wednesday for a reduced law enforcement presence in the courtroom, arguing the sight of Strozier surrounded by three or four stout deputies had a prejudicial impact.

The attorney also questioned Deputy Steve McDowell of the sheriff’s training team about an electronic stunning device inmates sometimes wear under their clothes, on an ankle or forearm.

Baker called it a “torture device,” which if activated sent 50,000 volts shooting through the body to incapacitate an inmate, possibly causing “self-defecation.” But he acknowledged Strozier, who wore such a device only during a morning court session Jan. 28, no longer had one on.

Baker challenged the manner in which the sheriff’s office typically handles courtroom security, saying it made no distinction between pretrial detainees and convicts.

Baker said the security measures and pretrial publicity could lead to a change of venue, moving Strozier’s trial elsewhere. Baker won some concessions from Superior Court Judge Gil McBride, who ordered that Strozier not wear a prison uniform in court and not wear shackles during his trial. McBride also issued an order telling news photographers they may shoot “no photos or video of Mr. Strozier showing him restrained in any way” and none picturing him in the presence of law enforcement officers.

The defense was not successful in all its efforts. McBride rejected Baker’s motion to make Slater charge Strozier either with malice murder or felony murder, not both as he has been indicted. Malice murder means killing someone “with malice aforethought.” Felony murder means causing a death while committing a felony, in this case burglary.

Slater said Georgia law allows the dual indictment.

“Just because we’re allowed to do something doesn’t make it right,” Baker countered.

McBride agreed with Slater that the indictment was consistent with the law and with court precedents.

Baker also found he could not compel the prosecution to keep all the evidence it once had on Strozier. Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly said some of the loot from burglaries police found in Strozier’s downtown apartment the day after Jackson’s homicide already has been returned to the owners.

McBride ordered Kelly to keep what’s left: “If you have it in your possession, I want it preserved,” he said.

Wednesday was the first of a three-day series of court sessions to plow through more than 100 defense motions. A previous three-day proceeding was held in late January, and a third is set for late May.

Attorneys may appeal McBride’s rulings to the Georgia Supreme Court, which would have to review them before a trial date could be set.