Owen jury will hear case against officials

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By Jessica Singleton

A jury comprised of Owen countians will hear the case against three locals officials charged with theft.

Tuesday, Owen County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bates heard arguments to decide where Owen County Judge-Executive Billy O’Banion’s trial will be held.

Bates ruled the trial will remain in Owen County – at least for now.

“I have looked at this backward and forward, and we have to get back to the law,” Bates said.

If it becomes difficult to select an impartial jury, Bates said he could reconsider the defense’s motion to move the trial to another county.

Bates rejected another motion to separate the trials of O’Banion, Owen County Treasurer Gayla Lewis and former deputy judge-executive Renaee Gaines.

O’Banion was charged on Sept. 23 with theft, theft of services and official misconduct. Gaines was charged with two counts of theft, complicity to theft of services and official misconduct; and Lewis was charged with complicity to theft and two charges of official misconduct.

In the motion for a change of venue,  O’Banion’s attorney argued a change of venue should be allowed if the defendants can’t get a fair trial because of  the potential for a prejudiced jury.

The defendants were represented by Steven Howe for O’Banion; Michael L. Judy representing Gayla Lewis; and Edward M. Bourne for Gaines.

Howe argued against holding the trial in Owen County because the potential jurors are also the alleged victims. The defense attorneys argued this would be a clear and express violation of O’Banion’s rights and due process.

Howe also cited the large amount of publicity surrounding the case.

“These stories and broadcasts have been heard or published into practically every home in Owen County and have caused much anger and distrust in the community,” the motion stated.

The defense also argued that public discussion and gossip have been rampant in this case and that all of these points make it impossible to find jurors who have not heard about the trial.

O’Banion’s defense had collected affidavits from Owen County residents who agree that public opinion about this case would prevent a fair trial.

The affidavits submitted to Bates were from Owenton businessman Larry Tackett, former Owen County Chamber of Commerce President Stuart Bowling, retired businessman Charles Richardson and Owenton Mayor David “Milkweed” Wotier.

Wotier said he made his decision based on what is fair.

“I don’t know if anyone is guilty or not, but everyone has the right to a fair trial,” he said.

Commonwealth Attorney James Crawford responded to the motion with a written statement that outlined his opposition.

Crawford said the defense’s argument that citizens of the county are automatically swayed against O’Banion is not supported by state and federal law.

In response to the large amount of media attention to this case, Crawford said the reports appear to be fair and accurate accounts.

Crawford said the fact that jurors may have talked or read about a case is not enough for a change of venue.

Crawford also collected affidavits from citizens who said the trial should stay in Owen County. The affidavits were from Clint Swigert, Gary Hunter, Donald York, Dave Williams, Kathy McBurney, Joyce Malcomb, Dennis Sharon, Michael Ramsey, Clarence Ware, and James Bush.

In other court news, Gaines will go before the court to change her plea Tuesday. She originally pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The next pre-trial hearing is 1 p.m. on Jan. 6.