Press, lawyers struggle with case

A private hearing has been scheduled for the prosecution and defense to share and discuss evidence in the 1998 Hester College fire retrial of Jerry Walker.

Last year, Walker was indicted a second time for setting the fire that killed Michael Minger, a junior music student living in the residential college. The incident also seriously injured another student.

In a hearing early last week, Commonwealth Attorney Mark Blankenship, the case’s main prosecutor asked Foust to set the meeting “in camera,” setting restrictions on media coverage.

The motion prompted The Paducah Sun to file a complaint motion earlier this week citing a violation of its freedom of speech.

Blankenship said he feared it would be impossible to compile an unbiased jury for the trial scheduled for July 6 if media coverage continued.

Currently, several local newspapers, TV and radio stations have printed or aired coverage on the status hearings since last fall. The May 4 meeting, is to be held in Judge Dennis Foust’s personal chambers at Calloway County Circuit Court.

Dennis Null, Walker’s defense attorney, said the hearing will likely center on possible evidence and potential witnesses in the case.

He said he understood Blankenship’s motive for filing the motion, but said it was unrealistic as coverage of the upcoming trial has only increased.

“This is a real dilemma for everybody,” he said. “The unfortunate result of that motion being filed is more publicity than if we’d not had it. I think what ultimately will happen is that we will agree.”

Null said the April 9 hearing had been scheduled as the result of his own discovery motion, stemming from past discussions on the sharing of evidence between the prosecution and defense.

In a February hearing, Null had reported a lack of communication between the two parties to Foust, who had charged Blakenship and Null with better communication and the sharing of evidence.

Null said the situation has improved somewhat, but he would still like to be able to study the 12-year-old evidence in a more timely matter.

“We continue to have problems in that regard because of the massive amount of materials and also the fact that so many of the materials are from 11 to 12 years ago,” he said.

He attributed some of the problems to the aged material. The original trial in 2001 was video recorded on VHS tapes.

The tapes, stored in the Christian County Circuit Courthouse have since deteriorated over time, and Null said, causing large portions of now digital recordings to be inaudible.

After several attempts, Blankenship was unable to be contacted after the April 9 hearing.

The Paducah Sun’s hearing has been scheduled at 1 p.m. on April 23 in Calloway County Circuit Court. Another status hearing is scheduled for May 4.