BY KEN LITTLE
In a hearing Friday, the Greene County Criminal Court first-degree murder trial of Christopher Allen Jones was continued from next month to May 12 so a mitigation specialist will have enough time to prepare a pre-sentence report.
Jones and three other defendants are charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder in connection with the shooting deaths of a man and woman whose bodies were found on March 11, 2012.
The bodies of Courtney A. Thompson and Terrence L. Stewart were found on a dirt road under the Newport Highway bridge on U.S. 321.
The road under the bridge where the bodies were found is along the Nolichucky River, near the Cocke County line.
Charged are Jones, 32, of 649 7th St., Newport; James Douglas Black, 51, of 1309 Main St., White Pine; and Tabitha N. Whitlock, 33, of 3426 Dulaney Road, Mosheim. Teresa Jane Miller, 47, of Clifton Heights Road, Newport, was also later charged with first-degree murder.
The state announced its intention in September to seek prison terms of life without the possibility of parole for all four defendants, making the appointment of a mitigation specialist necessary for each defendant.
Judge John F. Dugger Jr. continued Jones' trial date to allow his lawyer, Douglas L. Payne, enough time to obtain the report from the specialist.
Mitigation specialists appointed by the state investigate a defendant's background and use the information to make recommendations to the court during the sentencing phase of a trial.
By moving back the scheduled Jan. 13 trial of Jones, the scheduled May trial of Whitlock will be continued until September. That, in turn, may delay the scheduled trial date for Black.
Miller, arrested in December, does not have a trial date set.
Continuing the Jones case until Payne has all required discovery information prevents a likely appeal should he be convicted of murder, Dugger said in court.
"We're talking about a case of life without parole. At some point, it will be sent back to us," he said.
"I think it can be a problem on appeal," Payne added.
Jones and Whitlock were both in court Friday for the motions hearing.
Jones, wearing slacks and a blue dress shirt, sat at the defense table in leg shackles. Whitlock, wearing a Greene County jail orange jumpsuit, sat on a bench nearby and conferred with her lawyer, T. Wood Smith.
Payne filed other motions to obtain evidence from the District Attorney General's Office.
Cecil Mills Jr., assistant district attorney general prosecuting the case, told Dugger he will provide requested discovery material to Payne. Dugger gave the defense lawyer until Jan. 13 to prepare a list of evidence he needs.
Payne also filed a motion for change of venue, based on publicity the case may receive. The murder and subsequent arrests of Jones and the other defendants were publicized across the area.
Dugger denied the motion, but told Payne he could file an amended motion for change of venue before trial if circumstances warrant.
He noted that the victims and three of four defendants, with the exception of Whitlock, are not from Greene County.
A motion by Payne to receive grand jury testimony about the case was not addressed because no recording of the grand jury proceedings was made.
Dugger approved Payne's motion for the prosecution to provide witness statements to investigators to the defense.
The judge denied another motion by Payne to prohibit all photographs of the victims at trial.
"This is a murder case. There are some photographs (of the victims) they are going to introduce," Dugger said. "We're going to take it individually. We're going to review each individual photograph."
Dugger approved another defense motion excluding statements from co-defendants from evidence.
Payne filed another motion asking that the state reveal any plea offers or agreements already made in the case.
Mills said there haven't been any.
Dugger also approved a prosecution motion to use the contents of some letters written by the defendant since he has been in jail.
He instructed Mills "to condense them down" so only relevant information is used at trial.
A Jan. 13 motion response date was set by Jan. 13 by Dugger.
SHOT IN CAR
Statements given to investigators by Black, Jones and Whitlock say the victims were shot as they rode in Thompson's car on the Newport Highway just inside the Greene County line.
Drugs and money are the apparent motivating factors for the robbery and shootings of Thompson, 20, and Stewart, 21, investigators said.
The victims were former Newport residents who moved back to Cocke County just before their deaths.
They knew the defendants, according to statements given to investigators.
Black, Jones and Whitlock were arrested within days of the shootings. Miller was charged in March.
All the defendants remain held on $500,000 bond each in the Greene County Detention Center.