Hundreds of Avoyelles Parish residents, jury summonses in hand, will begin gathering Monday morning in the parish courthouse in Marksville for the second-degree murder trial of Derrick Stafford, the first of the two former deputy city marshals charged in the fatal 2015 shooting of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis.
The shooting, which rocked the small city, came after Stafford, 33, and fellow deputy marshal Norris Greenhouse Jr., 25, chased Mardis' father, Christopher Few, for more than two miles on the night of Nov. 3, 2015. Few, who was also shot several times, survived and is expected to testify at Stafford's trial.
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But the central piece of evidence is almost certain to be graphic video from a Marksville policeman's body camera, which at least partially captured the shooting as well as the grim aftermath of the scene. At a press conference announcing the arrests of Stafford and Greenhouse three days after the shooting, State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson called the footage "the most disturbing thing I've seen."
His comments were carried live on national television networks and spurred press coverage that went international, drawing an unprecedented degree of attention to the Avoyelles Parish city of less than 6,000 residents.
Although the shooting did not capture the same degree of national attention as other fatal police shootings in recent years — including the July killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge — it still threw the community into turmoil.
Reporters for national newspapers, British tabloids and cable news networks filled rooms at the local casino's hotel and focused scrutiny on long-running political disputes, including a feud between the town's mayor and the judge in charge of the local city court that played a background role in the incident.
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State District Court Judge William Bennett, who is presiding over the murder case, has so far resisted requests to move the trial to another parish because of the publicity surrounding the shooting. But he could do so if attorneys for both sides can't find enough impartial jurors from among the parish's roughly 24,000 registered voters.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors both said they anticipate jury selection to to be a lengthy process. Jurors will be sequestered throughout the trial.
Stafford's attorneys, Jonathan Goins and Christopher LaCour, said in an interview on Thursday that Edmonson’s remarks and press accounts unfairly portrayed Stafford and Greenhouse as killers without considering what they contend are crucial other facts in the case.
Goins said the body camera video doesn't capture key details surrounding the incident, including what the defense alleges were Few's attempts to ram the officers with his small SUV.
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According to Goins, another deputy marshal at the scene who hasn't been charged, Jason Brouillette, has told investigators he thought Few posed a threat to the officers.
Goins also said a ballistics diagram of the scene produced by the State Police suggests that the Marksville officer who captured the shooting on video, Kenneth Parnell, also fired his weapon — an allegation that contradicts Parnell's written statement to investigators and that was strongly denied by prosecutors.
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"We know of no evidence to support the claim that a third officer shot," said Ruth Wisher, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Attorney General's Office. "We are focused on prosecuting the cases against the two officers indicted by the Avoyelles Parish Grand Jury."
The state Attorney General's Office stepped in to handle the case because Greenhouse's father, Norris Greenhouse Sr., is a longtime prosecutor in Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle III's office.
Few, Mardis' father who survived the shooting, may also come under close scrutiny in the case. In court filings, Stafford's attorneys contended that tests in the hospital where Few was being treated for his wounds showed he was drunk and tested positive for amphetamines and benzodiazepines (Xanax or Valium).
But Stafford's attorneys said the prime goal would be to show that Few posed an imminent threat and that Stafford and Greenhouse acted reasonably in shooting at the car, firing at least 18 rounds combined, according to the state.
Their case may be a difficult one. Bennett, the judge in the case, said at a Sept. 28 hearing at which the body camera footage was publicly shown for the first time that Few's car "was not being used as a deadly weapon" when the officers opened fire.
"I daresay it was not even close to being used as a deadly weapon at that time," Bennett said.
Goins contrasted the case with other high-profile fatal police shootings in recent years, arguing that authorities moved far too quickly in arresting his client.
"When you look at other police shootings from around the country, there was a deliberate fact-finding mission before there was a judgment called in each case," Goins said. "Here, there was simply a rush to judgment."
The Marksville case sharply differs from most of the fatal police shootings that have become the focus of national debate and demonstrations in recent years. The young age of the victim — an autistic child who died while still strapped into his carseat — and the speed with which State Police investigators arrested the officers involved set it apart from many other cases.
The case also inverted the racial narrative of many of the most controversial shootings. The accused officers, both of whom were moonlighting at the time of the shooting for the Marksville Ward Marshal, are black. The father and son they shot were white.
Goins, Stafford's attorney, said race played an unavoidable role in the case. Officials with State Police, which investigated the shooting and arrested Stafford and Greenhouse, have strenuously denied that and said the strength of the physical evidence in the case — including the video — led them to move quickly.
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The reverberations from the fatal shooting have also been felt in the town's political scene, where many residents and officials say the feud over funding for Marksville's city court helped set the stage for the shooting.
Ward Marshal Floyd Voinche Sr., whose office historically has served court paperwork and warrants, purchased two used Crown Victoria police cars and began writing tickets and patrolling the streets after tickets written by local police plunged amid a funding dispute between Marksville Mayor John Lemoine and City Court Judge Angelo Piazza III.
Both Stafford, a lieutenant at the Marksville Police Department, and Greenhouse, who also worked as an Alexandria city marshal, were moonlighting for Voinche when they began chasing Few, eventually cornering Few's car near the gates of the shuttered Marksville State Historic Site.
Voinche, a part-time school bus driver who has served in the elected position for more than a decade, said he's struggled to recruit part-time officers to work for him since the shooting.
Voinche said his part-time deputies work no more than 17 hours a month because of a state law capping their compensation at no more than Voinche's. They have full arrest powers but the marshal said they've pretty much stopped writing tickets or doing other work beyond serving warrants and papers.
Riddle, a former state lawmaker who has been the parish's district attorney for the past 15 years, said the case has exacerbated divisions in the town and stirred up anti-police sentiment in town.
Riddle said he's seen more criminal defendants in unrelated cases "trying to blame things on the police department using this as an example of why they think the police are wrong."
The hundreds of local residents summoned for jury duty this week will take the first steps toward resolving the case.
Both officers have remained free on $1 million property bonds as they've awaited their trial dates, which have been repeatedly delayed. Greenhouse, the younger of the two officers at 25, is currently scheduled to go on trial June 12.
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