A judge has decided to move the most high-profile murder trial in recent St. John the Baptist Parish history to St. Martin Parish.
Judge J. Sterling Snowdy, of 40th Judicial District Court, announced the move last month for the scheduled Feb. 15 trial of Brian Smith, who faces the death penalty if convicted. He is accused of having a role in a 2012 shootout that killed two Sheriff's Office deputies.
Snowdy had approved a change of venue in March, calling the St. John courthouse "the heart of controversy" for the defendant. The judge chose St. Martin Parish after a visit to the area.
Snowdy's ruling was in response to a motion filed in 2014 by Richard Bourke, the director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center and Smith's attorney. Bourke said his client could not get a fair trial in St. John Parish because of the "level of community engagement" in response to the shootings.
He cited "the understandable and extensive support for those killed and injured and their families," noting that the victims also worked for the district attorney in local drug court.
A judge may decide next week whether to move the most high-profile murder trial in recent St. John the Baptist Parish history out of the parish.
Deputies Jeremy Triche and Brandon Nielsen were killed during the Aug. 16, 2012, shootout, which happened before dawn at the Scenic Riverview Mobile Home Park in LaPlace.
Deputies Michael Boyington and Jason Triche were left with permanent disabilities.
Seven people were initially charged. Smith and another defendant, Kyle Joekel, are the only two facing the death penalty. They were indicted in 2012 on first-degree murder and attempted murder charges.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty on the first-degree murder charge.
Joekel will be tried separately, but his trial also will be moved.
Aside from Smith and Joekel, only one other defendant is awaiting trial.
Brian Smith's father, Terry Smith, was charged with attempted first-degree murder in the shootings. He was sentenced to life in prison last year in connection with a separate case.
Three other suspects — Derrick Smith; Terry Smith’s wife, Chanel Skains; and Brian Smith’s girlfriend, Britney Keith — pleaded guilty as accessories years ago.
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The shootout created long-lasting scars in the community. The two slain deputies were both husbands and fathers and well-respected members of the community, according to witnesses.
Witnesses said the fatal incident began when Boyington, who was working a security detail, tried to pull Terry Smith over. When the deputy asked for Smith's driver's license, he instead drove off and gunplay ensued.
In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center said investigators suspected Terry Smith was tied to the anti-government “sovereign citizens” movement, a group whose members deny governmental authority and are sometimes violent toward law enforcement personnel.
Bourke says his client, Brian Smith, is legally insane.
While the trial is scheduled for February, a ruling on when to move the proceedings is being appealed.
Bourke argued for the case to be moved immediately, but Snowdy opted to shift proceedings to St. Martin Parish only once the trial begins.
Snowdy said because the case is so well-known, an immediate move would increase chances of prejudicing prospective jurors in the other parish, "defeating the purpose of moving the trial in the first place."
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Bourke has appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal.
In the meantime, members of slain Deputy Jeremy Triche's family have asked not to be contacted by Bourke or any intermediary of his defense team.
It's common for defense teams to have liaisons conduct outreach to victims' family members, but in this case, the family members argued that was causing them "emotional distress."