Lawyers seek change of venue, say race-tainted comment reflect entire region

LONDON, Ky. (WTVQ) – In an unusual move, two Louisville attorneys won’t their clients’ federal court trial moved from London because an elected prosecutor’s use of a racial term in open court three years ago suggests their clients can’t get a fair trial in that district of federal court.

The two attorneys, Patrick Renn, who represents Deandre Johnson, and Rob Eggert, who represents Courtney Leo Pierce, argue (johnson venue brief) the comments suggest a possible racial bias throughout the community. Johnson and Pierce both are Black.

They face federal drug trafficking trials in the next six weeks.

In change-of-venue motions, the two cite comments Commonwealth’s Attorney Jackie Steele made during a May 2018 trial in an unrelated case.

During questioning, Steele asked a witness, “I believe you also said in your interview … that there was a colored — maybe two colored guys there.”

“The elected prosecutor obviously felt comfortable using the highly offensive term in describing the race of two individuals. The appointed judge did not find the offensive description objectionable since no reprimand of the prosecutor was made. Similarly, Messer’s defense counsel did not object; and no recorded gasps from the 12-person jury, or audience is reflected in the transcript,” Renn wrote.

“Lady Justice is described as blind to the individuals who appear before her. She does not see race. Regrettably, Lady Justice is not blind, at least in one county in the Eastern District of Kentucky, Southern Division,” the lawyers continued.

At another point, Renn said his client “will be denied due process of law and a fundamentally fair trial, if his case is presented in a division where an elected official — the prosecuting attorney — makes offensive and racist comment — in open court.”…If an elected official, and the criminal justice system cannot administer justice blindly, Johnson has little confidence in the citizens drawn from those counties to sit in judgment of him,” the motion continued.

Steele does not handle cases in federal court but the lawyers say his comments are emblematic of the larger issue and attitude of the residents of the area. They note the African American population in the 14 counties that make up the Southern Division is 3% or less.

Judge Claria Boom has given prosecutors until Sept. 6 to respond.

Johnson is scheduled for trial Sept. 15 and Pierce on Oct. 12. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeremiah Johnson and Andrew Trimble are prosecuting the cases.

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