By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @DinwiddieMonitr
Posted: June 5, 2020 | 3:30 p.m.
Jury trials across Virginia suspended due to virus’ spread
DINWIDDIE – The spread of novel coronavirus across Virginia and the state supreme court’s emergency declaration resulted in the second trial of the man accused of allegedly killing a Dinwiddie County teenager.
According to court records, the planned seven-day, second-degree murder trial of Anton Coleman, set for May 28, was continued as COVID-19 forces a continued prohibition on jury trials following the declaration of a judicial emergency in late March.
A status hearing in the case is scheduled for mid-July in Dinwiddie County Circuit Court.
Prosecutors allege Coleman is the man responsible for the death of Dinwiddie County teenager Ke’Asia Adkins during the summer of 2018. At that time, Adkins was reported missing by her family when she failed to show up for cheerleading practice at Dinwiddie High School.
Following vigils and extensive searches, authorities would discover Adkins’s body in a wooded area behind her North Dinwiddie home days after she was reported missing. Within hours, Dinwiddie County detectives would arrest and charge Coleman with abduction, with a grand jury later indicting the man on first-degree murder charges. The charge would later be upgraded to capital murder.
Over the course of 2019, prosecutors and Coleman’s defense would take part in a number of hearings, including those that evaluated the Alberta man’s mental state before eventually heading to trial in early 2020.
At that time, prosecutors would amend the capital murder charge against Coleman to a lesser second-degree count. In January, a multi-day trial ended in a deadlock as jurors were unable to reach a consensus, forcing a mistrial.
Within days, Dinwiddie prosecutors would charge Coleman with second-degree murder for a second time as they prepared to move forward with their case against the man they allege killed Adkins nearly two years ago.
While the seven-day trial was set to begin just after the Memorial Day weekend on May 28, COVID-19 would prevent that from occurring following the declaration of a judicial emergency in March that effectively shut down the Commonwealth’s courts and axed jury trials. Since that time, the order has been reaffirmed several times, pushing the pause in trials closer to July as of this report.
“It is ordered that, without exception and without regard to when any scheduling order was entered, all civil and criminal jury trials are suspended and shall be continued, and no jury trials shall occur in the Commonwealth for the duration of this order,” the supreme court’s latest order detailed. “All jury trials scheduled for a date after June 28, 2020, are subject to a further period of suspension if the Declaration of Judicial Emergency is extended for additional periods.”
While jury trials have been stopped across Virginia, other hearings in some courts are continuing as the state supreme court prefers those to take place via “video conferencing or telephone.” In addition, “all courts may hear in-person non-emergency matters and non-jury cases if they determine it is safe to do so, and provided they comply with the guidance for transitioning from emergency to routine operations” and the courts join state and local governments in developing and rolling out plans to resume operations in a form close to pre-COVID-19 levels while adhering to health guidelines.
As next month’s status report approaches, it remains unknown if defense attorneys for Coleman will continue their push for a change of venue as they believe their client cannot receive a fair trial in Dinwiddie County due to media coverage and the community’s knowledge of Adkins’ death.
In a November 2019 filing, Coleman’s attorneys argued news coverage dating back to Adkins’ disappearance, through her body being found, and the resulting court proceedings have caused “irreparable damage to Coleman’s due process rights should the trial remain in Dinwiddie.”
“Unlike many other highly publicized trials, Mr. Coleman’s case has largely been and remains an intensely local story,” they said. “Potential jurors in Dinwiddie will be familiar with the case, while citizens elsewhere in the Commonwealth can reasonably be expected to be unfamiliar with the facts, making a change of venue practical and appropriate.”
They continued, “Potential jurors, as residents of Dinwiddie, will have an interest in favor of Ke’Asia Adkins at the expense of the defendant’s due process rights. There has been an outpouring of affection throughout Dinwiddie for the victim, who was widely praised at her funeral,” where they note hundreds of people attended, citing news coverage at the time.
“A general climate of bias toward the defendant can be adduced from this outpouring of sympathy for the victim and her family from the wide demographic within the community.”
Coleman’s attorneys added further, “A change of venue provides the only method of avoiding the obvious appearance and reality of unfairness resulting from holding this trial in Dinwiddie under circumstances … identified”
Dinwiddie County Commonwealth Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill argued against a venue change heading into the January trial, citing a number of cases in her argument while stating the “sheer volume of publicity or widespread knowledge of the crime(s) or the accused is insufficient by itself to justify a change of venue.”
She added that “an attempt to seat an impartial jury where the crime occurred should be made before taking the drastic action of moving the trial of the case to a different city or county.”
Judge Paul Cella denied the motion and the case moved forward before ultimately ending in a mistrial. At the conclusion of February’s trial, the defense moved to have the earlier trial’s exhibit sealed from public view, alluding again to the belief their client isn’t able to receive a fair trial in Dinwiddie County in their filing.
“In light of the difficulty in picking a qualified jury the first time, and in light of heavy media attention during and immediately after trial, it remains Mr. Coleman’s position that he cannot get a fair trial in Dinwiddie County, especially if all of the trial exhibits are open to public scrutiny,” they said in their motion.
According to the defense, the jury selection process was hampered due to the number of jurors struck, explaining the main reason so many were excused from service was due to “knowledge of the parties or witnesses, and knowledge of the case through media attention.”
As of this report, it is unknown if Coleman’s defense team will submit another venue change motion.
Coleman remains behind bars at Meherrin River Regional Jail, where he has been incarcerated since July 2018.
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