BENTON — The defense in the case of a 16-year-old boy accused of killing two fellow students and injuring several others in a shooting at Marshall County High School filed a motion in which it expressed concern about alleged tampering with potential witnesses by the Marshall County school system.
Friday afternoon, a judge agreed that the issue of tampering should be investigated further.
Hearing both the defense and the prosecution agree that a hearing in the case of the accused, Gabe Parker, would be an appropriate step in the process, Marshall Circuit Judge James T. Jameson set a Feb. 1, 2019, date for an evidentiary hearing in Benton. Parker is accused of firing the shots that took the life of Bailey Holt and Preston Cope on the morning of Jan. 23 in the commons area of Marshall County High School in Draffenville.
However, while both the defense and prosecution agreed that a hearing was necessary, they did have disagreements.
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“We’re comfortable that no witness tampering occurred in this case, by the school system or anyone else for that matter,” said Marshall Commonwealth’s Attorney Dennis Foust, in addressing the motion fled by attorney Tom Griffiths of Danville, who is representing Parker. That motion, filed Monday, implied that what it described as an “agent for the Marshall County school district,” identified as attorney Michael Owsley of Benton, had apparently instructed employees of the district to not talk to defense investigators about the case.
Specifically mentioned in that motion was a letter Owsley, the district’s attorney, allegedly sent to the defense explaining what had happened. The defense has interpreted that to say that Owsley had asked the defense not to contact employees anymore. Foust, the prosecutor, saw it differently.
“It did not say he was telling people not to talk, but the purpose was to ask the defense to make no further attempts to make contact with these witnesses as they have been through a difficult and trying experience and are still dealing with the aftermath,” Foust said. “That’s a far cry from, ‘Do not talk to anyone else involved in this case.’”
In his response, Foust quoted a Kentucky Supreme Court case from 2012 — McGuire vs. Commonwealth — that dealt with another school-related shooting case in Lexington. However, that case involved a school employee who was accused — then convicted — of killing another employee. In that case, the court addressed alleged Fayette County School Board attorney interference with witnesses.
(The court said the school district appeared to have erred and outlined what employers could not and could do in similar cases. School systems cannot interfere with witnesses’ decisions about speaking with the defense or control access to witnesses outside of work time.)
Griffiths, Parker’s defense attorney, used McGuire extensively during his presentation Friday, focusing on how such alleged action could damage a case.
“This is a most important motion to me,” Griffiths said. “It’s also one that I did not assume would ever happen in this case and it’s very troubling because it gives me concern that the integrity of the whole case has been affected, and that is that a civil attorney that is representing the school system has been speaking to witnesses in this case. I don’t know how many he’s talked to or what was said, and we also don’t know how much damage has been done to this case.
“There is no question that contact occurred, and it definitely happened. The problem is we don’t know how broad the context was and there’s no way to get to the bottom of it without holding an evidentiary hearing and questioning these folks here in this courtroom.”
Foust did note that, while the presiding judge and the Supreme Court both strongly admonished the Fayette school system in the McGuire case, its alleged actions did not have a bearing on the final outcome. (The jury convicted the employee of a lesser charge of manslaughter.) Still, Foust added that this is a case in which everything must be examined in order for it to withstand potential post-trial judiciary challenges.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” he said in explaining his endorsement of the hearing. “We want to try this case one time and one time only.”
In addition to the witness tampering aspect, a second motion will be heard on Feb. 1, and this will involve the defense gaining access to Parker’s counseling records.