Moved murder trial starts today in Hattiesburg

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jury selection is scheduled to begin in Hattiesburg today in theretrial of a Lincoln County man charged with murder in the 2006beating death of another man who was by all accounts, his co-workerand friend.

Michael Leggett, 33, is accused of beating Jewell Duane Douglasto death with a tire iron after an argument. He was sentenced as ahabitual criminal to life in prison with no chance of parole at hisfirst trial almost a year ago in February 2008.

The defense was granted a second trial based on what CircuitJudge Mike Taylor ruled as prosecutorial misconduct when thedefense contended the state had made a secret deal with starwitness Mark Culbertson. Prosecutors vehemently denied a deal wasin place with Culbertson, who was also accused in the crime andpleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge after testifying inLeggett’s trial.

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Defense attorney Joe Fernald said the decision to file themotion for change of venue was entirely based upon insuring a fairtrial for Leggett after what the defense considered excessive mediapublicity. The motion was granted and the trial was scheduled tostart today in Hattiesburg.

“We’re prepared to move forward with this case,” Fernald said.”It’s a logistical nightmare to move everything like we’re havingto, but we’re ready to go.”

Fernald said this is the first time he’s had to deal with achange of venue on a trial in his 22 years as an attorney, but hesaid he and co-counsel Jason Tate are optimistic.

“I’ve tried 150 criminal cases without ever having a change ofvenue granted,” he said. “After 22 years, this is a new experience.Jason and I are ready to see our client get a fair trial.”

District Attorney Dee Bates said his office has been in on a fewchange of venue cases, particularly cases involving capital murdercharges.

“It’s difficult to have that scenario because we’ll be tryingthe case in Hattiesburg so you have to relocate all the witnessesover there, as well as providing transportation for those who don’thave it,” he said. “It’s difficult but we’re ready.”

Bates said he and ADAs Diane Jones and Brendon Adams are alsooptimistic. He said the game plan at this point is simply topresent the facts as they happened, which was enough to lead apanel of four women and eight men to return the guilty verdictafter barely an hour and a half of deliberation in Leggett’s firsttrial.

“We know the cases and the facts that we have, and we’ll presentit the same way,” he said. “We just present the facts that we haveand how we know them.”

Fernald would not comment on if he will bring up the allegeddeal between the prosecution and Culbertson. He also could notconfirm or deny if the defense will allow Leggett to testifyagain.

Officials said security will be stepped up due to the nature ofLeggett’s charges, with Lincoln County deputies on hand as well asForrest County’s regular security.

“We’re just trying to provied the tightest security we can,”said Lincoln Coutny Sheriff Steve Rushing. “It’s a different setupthan usual for us though. We don’t foresee there being an issue,but we’re trying to cover every base we can just in case. “