AMITE — Judge Ray Chutz recessed the first-degree murder trial of Michael Varnado on Tuesday evening when the prosecution announced it was calling an unannounced witness.
After prosecutors Don Wall and Angel Monistere called for Madeline Landry, an employee of Don’s Seafood Restaurant, to take the witness stand, defense attorneys Don Thiel and Steve Lemoine argued they had not been informed Landry would testify and they needed time to prepare.
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 on the outskirts of Hammond.
The disagreement over calling Landry to testify arose because of testimony given by Demetrios Collier Sr. during the first day of trial Monday.
Collier testified that on the night of Feb. 15, 2007, his deceased son had spent the night at his home. He also said that at about 9:30 a.m. on the day of the fire that Roberts had picked up her child at his home and that he had then gone to work at Don’s Seafood Restaurant.
Throughout Collier’s testimony, Thiel repeatedly questioned him about nine telephone calls between him and Roberts the night before the fire.
When asked about each call by Thiel, Collier replied, ‘I don’t remember that call.”
Prosecutor Wall told Chutz on Tuesday that he had only learned of Collier’s employment at Don’s Seafood during Monday’s testimony and that he had been able to obtain employee records from Don’s on Monday evening.
Wall contended the defense had the same opportunity to pursue those records as the prosecution did.
“Your honor, we took the action we did when we realized that the defense was going to try and make a scapegoat out of Collier,” Wall said.
Thiel said he had been unable to reach Collier for the past year and added, “We don’t have the resources that the prosecution has so we weren’t able to pursue this.”
Chutz then recessed the trial until Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Tangipahoa Parish Courthouse.
Chutz denied three defense requests for mistrial Tuesday.
The requests came during testimony by Bryan Jones, who said he came in contact with Varnado on the day of the fire. Jones — in the Tangipahoa Parish Jail for probation violation — said that on that day, he and his then girlfriend, Janie St. Romain, had asked Tim Oliver (now deceased) to take them from the trailer park to the nearby U.S. 190 Motel.
While on the stand, Jones said when he and St. Romain were leaving the trailer park, a man approached the car. At that point Jones blurted out, “Tim said, ‘Oh, that’s Mike.’”
Lemoine immediately objected because Jones was relaying hearsay evidence. Chutz then excused the jury and Thiel and Lemoine asked for a mistrial.
“Your honor, that name is forever imprinted in the minds of the jury and they are not going to forget it,” Thiel pleaded. Chutz rejected the request but later told the jury to ignore Jones’ remark about “Mike.”
During Jones’ lengthy testimony, Chutz had to excuse the jury twice more because Jones continued to give hearsay evidence.
Jones identified the accused Varnado as the person who approached Oliver’s car and asked Oliver to purchase some gasoline for him. Jones said Varnado got into the car with himself, Oliver and St. Romain and the group then went to Varnado’s trailer.
He said Varnado handed Oliver a Hawaiian Punch bottle that Oliver subsequently filled and placed between his legs while he drove the pair to the nearby motel.
Thiel continued questioning Jones about testimony he gave in an initial interview with detectives on Feb. 20, 2007; at an Aug. 18, 2010, preliminary hearing; and then in his Tuesday testimony.
Thiel noted that Jones testified a year ago that he did not know Varnado and yet at the current trial he pointed at Varnado and said that he was the man who wanted gas purchased in the plastic bottle. Jones countered that Varnado’s hair style had been different at one time and that was why he was confused.