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Mistrial looms in case – Judge says jury may be ‘poisoned 1 by remark

Author(s): JAMES M IN TON Date: July 16, 2010 Section: BAKKR-ZACI-IARY BUREAU

South LA. & Business

ST. FRANCISVILLE – Jurors in the Jeffrey Cameron Clark first-degree murder trial will learn today whether they will begin hearing testimony or be sent back home to St. Tammany Parish. Retired Orleans Parish District Judge Dennis Waldron granted a defense motion Thursday for a mistrial in the case after Jefferson Parish prosecutor Tommy Block said in his opening statement that Clark is trying for “another life sentence.”

The state, through Block and other Jefferson and Caddo Parish prosecutors, is seeking the death penalty against Clark in the Dec. 28, 1999, stabbing and beating death of Louisiana State Penitentiary security Capt. David C. Knapps, 49.

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.

The judge said the prosecutor’s comment “might very well have poisoned” the jurors’ ability to give Clark a fair trial.

Waldron recessed court for 24 hours to give the prosecutors an opportunity to ask another court to review his ruling.

The judge told the jury of nine women and three men to keep an open mind until court resumes today and not attribute the delay to anything “other than the law of the state of Louisiana.”

If Clark is found guilty of first-degree murder, the 1984 murder can be brought to the jury’s attention when it considers whether Clark should get the death penalty or life in prison.

Waldron said he does not believe Block spoke about “another life sentence” intentionally or in bad faith.

“But that is not the issue,” Waldron said.

The judge said he based his ruling on an article of the state Code of Criminal Procedure that says a judge “shall” honor a defense motion for a mistrial when the jury hears of “another crime committed or alleged to have been committed by the defendant as to which evidence is not admissible.”

During seven days of questioning in Covington, where the jury was chosen, attorneys for both sides repeatedly asked potential jurors if they could put aside the obvious fact that Clark is serving a sentence at Angola and consider only the testimony about Knapps’ slaying.

The severity of Clark’s current sentence was never mentioned, however.

“I don’t think he (Waldron) had any other choice. The reference was clear,” defense attorney Tommy Damico said after court.

“Nobody wants to try this case twice, and I think it would come back (on appeal),” said Damico, who was appointed by the court, along with Joe Lotwick, to represent Clark.

Caddo Parish prosecutor Hugo Holland argued unsuccessfully to have Waldron admonish the jurors to disregard the reference of an earlier life sentence, saying jurors chosen in the case all said they would follow the law and not speculate on why Clark is in Angola.

Clark is the first of five Angola inmates to face trial in Knapps’ death, which occurred during an escape attempt at Angola’s Camp D.

The trials have been set back by numerous delays caused, in part, by a change in administration of the 20th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the deaths of three defense attorneys.

Other delays in the trials were due to the unexplained removal of the lead Jefferson Parish prosecutor, the slow processing of crime scene evidence and challenges to inmate statements that defense attorneys argued were given under duress.

Block and the other prosecutors met with about a dozen grim-faced relatives of the victim after court recessed Thursday, but Randy Whitstine, a brother-in-law of Knapps who sometimes acts as a spokesman for the family, said they would have no comment on the development.

Block also said he would withhold comment until a final ruling is made on the mistrial.

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