A judge on Friday ordered the trial of accused killer Ronald Exantus to be moved from Woodford County to neighboring Fayette County.
Special Judge Phil Patton issued the order a day after a public defender sought to move the trial because of pretrial publicity and racist comments posted on websites and social media, while a prosecutor argued that Exantus could receive a fair trial in Woodford County.
Exantus, 33, an Indianapolis divorced father of three, is accused of murder in the December 2015 killing of Logan James Dean Tipton, 6, in the boy’s Versailles home. If convicted, Exantus could receive the death penalty.
“The death of the child and the publicity surrounding this case have generated deep and widespread interest, sympathy and generosity for the victim’s family,” Patton wrote in the order transferring the trial to Fayette. “The court, from the totality of the circumstances, finds that it would be impossible to set a fair and impartial jury in Woodford or in the other adjoining counties (Bourbon and Scott) which comprise the 14th Judicial Circuit.”
“The court finds Fayette County to be the closest contiguous county where a fair and impartial jury can be seated,” Patton added.
In a postscript, Patton wrote that he wanted to be clear that “this transfer is not in any way based upon the numerous inappropriate racist comments posted on social media. There is no credible evidence that the views expressed by unknown persons represent the racial attitudes of the citizens of the 14th Judicial Circuit.”
During a court hearing on Thursday, public defender Bridget Hofler said there has been a “plethora of media coverage” about the case. Hofler questioned whether Exantus can receive a fair trial, and she cited various posts on media websites and elsewhere to back up her claim. In one post cited by Hofler, someone wrote, “He murdered a child and should receive death.”
In addition, Hofler said there is a “racial issue” in the case. Exantus is black, and Logan was white.
“Although Kentucky has not subscribed to hanging in years, there are countless, countless referrals to hanging, which of course refers back to lynching,” Hofler said. “Perhaps one of the most heinous things was, ‘Call the emergency squad at the Cincinnati Zoo to take care of him,’ which I believe is a reference to gorillas.
“To ignore that there is a racial element at work here would not be best practice,” Hofler said. “If the trial is tried here, Mr. Exantus will not receive a fair trial.”
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Keith Eardley said during the Thursday hearing that the amount of media coverage would be the same in Fayette County as it would be in Woodford.
As for the comments and posts cited by Hofler, Eardley said, “One thing we don’t know is who is making these comments. Are these people in Woodford County making these comments? Is it only a small group of individuals or is it a large segment of the community? We really don’t know. All we know is there are some really ugly comments appearing, and I don’t think we should take that as being reflective of the people of Woodford County.”
Eardley said Woodford Countians are fair and “I don’t believe they will deny Mr. Exantus the rights he’s entitled to.”
Eardley argued the court should first try to seat a jury in Woodford County, and if that isn’t feasible, then move the trial to Bourbon or Scott counties, which are in the same judicial circuit.
Nevertheless, the judge set a final pretrial conference for Aug. 11, and then scheduled jury selection to begin Aug. 14 in Lexington.
Patton, a retired judge, took over the Exantus case after the previous judge, Rob Johnson, was appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin to the Kentucky Court of Appeals in March.