Originally created 09/08/02

Fears of jury prejudice intensify



AIKEN - Since Aiken investigators announced last week that they had charged someone in Jessica Carpenter's slaying, they have expressed fears that he may never be tried in Aiken.

Those fears became stronger this week when officials from the Georgia Department of Corrections, who are holding Robert Atkins in a Reidsville prison, said he confessed to the brutal August 2000 slaying and rape of the 17-year-old.

Sgt. David Turno of the Aiken Department of Public Safety said Friday that as more stories are written about the case and a possible confession, the potential for jurors to be prejudiced against Mr. Atkins increases.

Aiken investigators announced last week that they had matched Mr. Atkins' DNA to DNA at the Carpenter house, where Jessica was found. They would not confirm a confession.

In recent years, two Aiken County death penalty cases have been affected by media attention.

Jurors from other parts of the state were brought to Aiken to determine the guilt and eventual punishment of David Mark Hill, who killed three caseworkers at the Department of Social Services office in North Augusta in 1996, and Arthur Hastings Wise, who killed four and injured three others at R.E. Phelon Co. in 1997.

Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan did not fight a change of venue motion in the Wise case because she and defense attorneys had been unable to find an impartial jury in Aiken County in the Hill case.

Ms. Morgan said she has not decided whether she will seek the death penalty against Mr. Atkins.

Mr. Hill's lawyer and former 2nd Circuit Solicitor John Harte said cases are often the talk of the town, so he had a strong argument for moving Mr. Hill's case.

Media attention and the community's knowledge are among factors judges have to consider in moving a case. But the length of time between the crime and the trial is another.

Mr. Harte said that, in his 10 years as chief prosecutor, which included three death penalty cases, he never had a trial moved. He said a trial for Mr. Atkins may be years away, but a change of venue might still be an issue.

"If (the trial is) five years from now, you're going to have a ton of people in Aiken County that weren't here when this happened," Mr. Harte said. "You really can't answer that question until you start getting the jurors in there and start talking to them."

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.