Mistrial declared in DeWitt cold murder case
Sept. 9, 2013 at 4:09 a.m.
Updated Sept. 10, 2013 at 4:10 a.m.
Ronnie Joe Hendrick, hair cut close and clean shaven, beamed at his family sitting along the wall of the DeWitt County courthouse district courtroom.
He waved briefly, still smiling.
District Judge Skipper Koetter had just declared a mistrial in Hendrick's murder case and reset it for June 2014.
His attorney had filed a motion for a change of venue because of pretrial publicity, mainly by the TNT cable television show "Cold Justice," and area newspapers reporting on the show.
"It's already in their minds. It's going to be an issue," defense attorney Tali Villafranca argued before Koetter before the mistrial ruling.
"The elephant is in the room already."
MISTRIAL BY THE NUMBERS
How the jury pool numbers dwindled in the DeWitt County cold murder case Monday.
• Potential jurors summoned: 225
• Potential jurors responding: 70
• Exempted: 10
• Disqualified because of pretrial publicity: 20
• Available jury pool: 40
SOURCE: DeWitt County District Clerk
CUERO - Because of a small jury pool, caused in part by pre-trial publicity, a mistrial was declared in a DeWitt County cold murder case.
"It's a bad situation," 267th District Judge Skipper Koetter, who made the ruling, said from the bench. "To air that six days before."
Koetter was referring to the airing of "Cold Justice," a TNT cable television program about the case, which premiered Sept. 3.
Ronnie Joe Hendrick, of Yorktown, 41, is charged with murder in the 2001 death of his girlfriend, Pamela Shelly, who was 31 when she died.
The death was originally ruled a suicide. The case was reopened by the DeWitt County Sheriff's Office in 2008, and Hendrick was indicted in October after investigators from the television show got involved.
In response to a motion for a change of venue filed by defense attorney Tali Villafranca, Koetter decided to see what eliminating those who had already formed an opinion about the case after seeing or discussing the show would do to the size of the jury pool.
Of 60 eligible jurors, after 10 had been granted exemptions, 23 had either seen or discussed the show.
One by one, those 23 came in front of Koetter. Twenty admitted they already formed an opinion on Hendrick's guilt or innocence and were disqualified from serving.
That left only 40 potential jurors.
"I'm not comfortable with that," Villafranca told the judge. "In a murder case, normally we've got 100, 200 jurors to pick from. I don't feel we can get a fair trial here."
The state also realized the reality of the situation.
"The chance of seating a jury right now is not good. We can try, but it will be a long shot," District Attorney Michael Sheppard told Koetter.
In a criminal case, a minimum of 32 potential jurors is required. Each side - the defense and the state - has 10 strikes during the jury selection process, according to the judge.
Moving the case to another county was discussed before Koetter made his mistrial ruling.
The judge said he would have to confer with circuit's administrative judge to find an open calendar date.
"I don't want to call a special panel," Koetter said, noting Calhoun and Jackson counties had regularly scheduled jury calls upcoming.
After some discussion among the judge and the attorneys, the case was reset for June 16, 2014.
"If we let it cool off for nine months, we'll be able to stay in the home county," said the judge. "Right now, apparently everybody's got an opinion."
"It's clear; it's a hot issue," Villafranca said.
Sheppard agreed to the postponement to keep the trial in DeWitt County.
Sheppard acknowledged that TNT had been asked to postpone airing that episode of the show until the trial ended.
Before his ruling, Koetter released the potential jurors who had been called back in the afternoon.
Hendrick is being held in the DeWitt County Detention Center on $500,000 bond. He was in jail for a parole violation when he was arrested on murder charges last year.