Author(s): JAMES MINTON Date: July 18, 2010 Section: BAKER-ZACHARY BUREAU
ST. FRANCISVILLE - The judge in the Jeffrey Cameron Clark first-degree murder trial dismissed the jury Saturday morning after the state Supreme Court upheld his earlier decision to declare a mistrial in the case. The judge and the attorneys left the West Feliciana Parish courthouse without deciding when to begin a new trial for Clark, one of five Angola inmates charged with first-degree murder in the Dec. 28, 1999, stabbing and beating death of prison security Capt. David Knapps, 49.
"We understand but respectfully disagree with the court's ruling. We intend to retry the case as soon as possible," Jefferson Parish prosecutor Tommy Block said later.
Retired Orleans Parish Judge Dennis Waldron declared a mistrial in the case Thursday after Block said in his opening statement that Clark was trying to get "another life sentence" rather than a death sentence.
Clark, 50, is serving a life sentence at the Angola prison for the 1984 murder of a Baton Rouge nightclub employee during an armed robbery, but state law bars any mention of that crime in the first phase of the trial.
Should Clark be found guilty of first-degree murder in Knapps1 slaying, the 1984 Baton Rouge murder can be brought to the jury's attention when it considers whether Clark should get the death penalty or life in prison.
The Supreme Court, in a 4-2 opinion reached Saturday morning, agreed with Waldron's decision that the jury's ability to give Clark a fair trial was compromised by Block's statement.
Associate Justices Jeannette T. Knoll, Marcus R. Clark, John L. Weimer and Bernette J. Johnson voted in the majority, while Greg G. Guidry and Jeffrey P. Victory dissented.
The disputed comment that led to the mistrial came as Block advised the jury that part of Clark's defense would be to minimize his involvement in the slaying and to show he did not have the specific intent to kill or cause great bodily harm to Knapps, one of several factors needed to find him guilty of first-degree murder.
Defense attorney Tommy Damico, in his opening statement, conceded that, because Clark took part in an aggravated escape attempt from Angola's Camp D, he had some responsibility in Knapps' death but "not specific intent" to kill him.
On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal -Judges J. Michael McDonald, Page McClendon and Jewel H. "Duke" Welch - overruled Waldron, saying he should admonish the jury to disregard the remark about Clark serving a life sentence.
The Supreme Court's opinion says, however, that an admonishment to the jury would not be sufficient to overcome the possible effect on the jury.
The high court halted the trial Friday afternoon while the state's third witness, Angola Warden Burl Cain, was on the stand.
Waldron explained the sequence of events to the jurors Saturday morning, noting that the issue raised by the defense had been reviewed by 10 judges with "an even split."
"Everyone agreed there was an error. The question was the gravity of the error," he told the jurors.
Clark's co-defendants are inmates Barry Rdgc, 50; David Brown, 37; Robert G. Carley, 42; and David Mathis, 33.
Clark's court-appointed attorneys, Damico and Joe Lotwick, were assisted by Mathis co-counsel Rachel Conner in seeking the Supreme Court ruling.
"The law's pretty clear," Conner said of the decision.
In addition to Block, the prosecutors are Mike Futrell from Jefferson Parish and Hugo Holland and Lea Hall of Shreveport
Jury selection in St. Tammany Parish took seven days.
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