The trial for Lester Kearney, who stands accused in the 2018 death of Lake Gaston resident Nancy Alford, will be held in Warren County after his attorneys chose to not seek a change of venue. During a hearing in downtown Warrenton this morning, defense attorney Robert Singagliese told Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. that decision was made last week.
Kearney is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, first-degree arson, breaking and entering, conspiracy to commit breaking and entering-building, larceny, larceny of a motor vehicle, possession of a stolen motor vehicle, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, and two counts each of robbery with a dangerous weapon and first-degree kidnapping in the March 9, 2018 home invasion and fire at the Wildwood Point Subdivision home of Rev. John and Dr. Nancy Alford. Rev. Alford, after being tied up and beaten, managed to escape the fire. Dr. Alford died at the scene.
The defense asked Hight to rule on a motion filed with the clerk of court first thing today on items related to the jury, including a juror questionnaire providing information on race and gender.
Singagliese said he had emailed Clerk of Court Lisa Blalock about the issue last Thursday, and had not heard back on whether or not certain information was available from her office.
Information requested in the motion includes policies, procedures or practices to the jury commission’s procedures in relation to the jury formation process; steps to address undeliverable summons and jurors not reporting when summonsed; addressing deferrals and excuses prior to jury services; jury commission meeting minutes for the most recent biennium; a copy of the list of eligible jurors in Warren County sent from the Department of Motor Vehicles to the clerk of court for the most recent biennium, which includes name, race and gender, if available; the county’s most recent raw jury list after the random selection process for the most recent biennium and after removing any disqualified persons from the list; and more.
Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey argued that race and gender have no bearing on jury service and said that attorneys don’t want jurors (from a pool that may be called for other trials) questioned about certain things outside of their presence.
Singagliese said the defense would be happy to work with the state to make a jury questionnaire more appropriate.
Instead of ruling on the motion, Hight told the attorneys to speak with Blalock to see if her office were able to generate the requested information without all of the burden falling on her. If not, he said he could make a ruling at another time.
Hight said he did not object to an electronic list of jurors and a questionnaire, and was not trying to deny the defense getting information. He asked the defense and state to work together on something they could agree on.
Jury selection will take place this fall, with the trial slated in early 2022. Kearney could face the death penalty.
In another matter, the defense asked the judge to require the state to release evidence in the Vance County case against Stephen Staton, Sr., who, along with two other Vance County deputies, is charged in a case involving embezzlement by a government employee, criminal conspiracy and other charges. Staton is a former State Bureau of Investigation agent whom the defense said was a critical participant in the Alford case and the person largely responsible for bringing Lester Kearney into the case.
“He (Staton) was the first person to mention his (Kearney’s) name,” defense attorney Amos Tyndall said.
Tyndall said that the state may choose not to call Staton for questioning during the trial, but the defense may have reason to do so, saying that Staton didn’t do anything to question the story told by Kevin Munn, Kearney’s co-defendant in the case.
Munn told law enforcement that Kearney was his partner in the home invasion and fire that killed Nancy Alford. He entered a guilty plea to first-degree murder in May 2018 and agreed to testify for the state in exchange for a life sentence rather than face the death penalty, but has since said Kearney didn’t participate in the crime.
Even if Staton doesn’t testify, certain evidence in Kearney’s trial may be inadmissible, Tyndall said, as it related to Staton’s credibility in performance of his job, such as how he handles witness interviews.
District Attorney Mike Waters said the state is not going to call Staton to the stand during Kearney’s trial.
“We’ve decided his credibility is an issue,” Waters said.
However, nothing has been done to interfere with Kearney’s right to a fair trial, he added, calling the defense motion a fishing expedition.
Hight denied the motion.