AMITE — Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the first-degree murder trial of Michael Varnado both rested their cases late Wednesday.
Closing arguments and Judge Ray Chutz’s final instructions to the jury will begin at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Tangipahoa Parish Courthouse.
Varnado is accused of suffocating Juana Roberts, 20, and then setting fire to the woman’s trailer on Feb. 16, 2007. Roberts’ two children, Mykell Roberts, 1 and Demetrios Collier Jr., 2 months, died of smoke inhalation. The FEMA trailer was in a temporary park off U.S. 190 West near Hammond.
Randall Zachary, who spent about a week in a cell with Varnado after Varnado’s arrest on March 20, 2007, testified Wednesday that in a conversation Varnado told him that he was in jail on a murder charge.
Zachary, who said he did not previously know Varnado, said he only learned about the triple slaying in which Varnado was allegedly involved when he was sent to the prison’s general population. It was then he said that he learned the details of the case from other inmates.
During lengthy testimony, Deputy Dale Athmann answered questions about the arrest of Varnado. He testified that Varnado traveled to Magnolia, Miss., the day after the fire and that he stayed in a camper trailer there until he eventually returned to Hammond, where he was subsequently arrested.
Assistant District Attorney Don Wall played a tape of an interview between Athmann and another deputy with Varnado after the arrest.
The quality of the tape was so poor that jurors were furnished a printed transcript of the interview with Varnado.
Varnado contended that he returned to Hammond the day after the fire. However, in testimony Tuesday two witnesses who lived near the camper trailer testified that Varnado had stayed there for about two weeks.
Defense Attorneys Michael Thiel and Steve Lemoine called only four rebuttal witnesses — including a DNA analyst who testified by telephone from Dallas. The DNA expert, Diana Langford, said her company, Orchid Celmark, analyzed a hair found in the hand of victim Roberts but that she did not know the test results.
Thiel concentrated on showing the jury a chart that detailed nine telephone calls between Roberts and the father of her son (Demetrios Collier Sr.) on the night before the fire.
Earlier, Madeline Landry, manager of Don’s Seafood Restaurant, testified that Collier was at work at her restaurant between about 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on the day of the fire. Wednesday’s trial was delayed for about two hours when Chutz learned that two jurors had violated sequestration instructions and had gone outside their hotel without a deputy escort.
Chutz grilled the pair, who said that they had not spoken with anyone during their brief stay outside, and that they had not watched television or read newspaper reports and had not discussed the case. All 12 jurors, and two alternates, were called in by Chutz and asked if they had violated the sequestration order.
All said no.
Chutz denied a defense motion for a mistrial based on the two jurors violating the sequestration order.