The man accused of killing his estranged wife and her friend in a Murabella home in 2015 will be tried in St. Johns County, but prospective jurors may be subject to individual questioning about how much press coverage they have seen about the case, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The decisions from Circuit Judge Howard Maltz came in response to two motions from James Terry Colley Jr.’s defense team asking for a change of venue in the case, as well as individual juror questioning on topics related to the death penalty and media coverage.
The motions were among about 10 that Colley’s attorney, Garry Wood, argued before Maltz during a morning hearing at the St. Johns County courthouse.
Colley, 37, was indicted in September 2015 on two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the August 2015 shooting deaths of 36-year-old Amanda Cloaninger Colley, and her friend, 39-year-old Lindy Mosler Dobbins. He is also facing two counts of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm, burglary with assault or battery, armed burglary and aggravated stalking after injunction.
The 7th Circuit State Attorney’s Office is seeking the death penalty in the case.
Wood argued that press coverage, both by The St. Augustine Record and various Jacksonville television stations, had already hampered his team’s ability to get an impartial jury for the coming trial and asked that Maltz move the trial to Volusia County.
“Obviously because of the pretrial publicity issue, which we believe will taint our ability — has tainted our ability — to have Mr. Colley receive a fair and impartial jury within St. Johns County, we are obviously seeking that this trial be moved … ” Wood said.
Maltz stopped Wood at that point to ask him how the coverage has tainted their ability to assemble a jury given that the jury selection, or voir dire, process hadn’t yet begun.
Wood suggested that some of the news coverage included pieces of information that may not be admissible in the trial.
But Maltz also wanted to know how long ago most of the stories with which Wood took issue had come out, saying that most recent stories that were “overwhelmingly merely statements of fact,” about coming court dates and how the case was progressing, wouldn’t seem overly problematic.
Wood said the stories were “spread out” but cited one television story from early 2017 that he thought could be a problem if jurors had seen it.
“Isn’t that issue easily resolved by questioning prospective jurors about … what information they have seen and their source of that information?” Maltz asked, setting up discussion about Wood’s second motion of the day for “individual, sequestered voir dire” in which individual prospective jurors would be asked questions outside the presence of the rest of the jury pool.
Wood said the matter wouldn’t be resolved to his satisfaction because it relied too heavily on jurors’ ability to remember what they might have seen and risked having their memory be jogged as the trial progressed.
After some additional discussion with Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton about the nature of the case’s coverage so far, Maltz denied the motion.
But he seemed to signal that he would be willing to split the difference with Wood when they discussed the possible individual sequestration of jurors during the selection process.
Ultimately Maltz denied the part of Wood’s motion that asked for prospective jurors to be questioned individually regarding their opinions on the death penalty, but deferred his decision concerning how they would be questioned regarding media coverage, hinting that he would likely grant the motion after further consideration about a possible questionnaire for them.
Wood argued that he was concerned if the prospective jurors were asked to discuss what they had seen or read about the case in front of other jurors, their answers could taint the rest of the pool.
Maltz said that had not been a problem in the recent death penalty trial for Sean Alonzo Bush, but suggested he could see where it might become an issue at Colley’s trial.
“I might be more inclined to in this case to do individual, sequestered voir dire on those who have heard about the case — in the sense of seeing or read about it — than I was in that case,” he said.
He then floated the idea of having prospective jurors answer a brief questionnaire about what they have seen about the case.
Wood and Dunton both agreed that might be useful, but they expressed some concerns about the logistics of how and when it would be distributed, and asked to be able to discuss the idea further.
After denying the motion for individual voir dire with regards to the death penalty, Maltz said he would decide on the rest of the motion at a later date.
“I am going to defer on the media issue for purposes of ruling today, but you know where my position is on that,” Maltz said.
After arguments on several other motions, Maltz turned to the issue of scheduling and suggested he would like to see the case tried in April.
Dunton said prosecutors could be ready for trial by February or March, but Wood said his team may be looking at May or June.
Maltz scheduled a pretrial hearing for Nov. 28 to allow both sides to discuss any issues and set a trial date.
“It’s my intention to set this case for trial at that time,” he said.
Including jury selection, guilt phase and a penalty phase, if necessary, the entire trial could take a month.