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Buie case venue decision delayed

ALBANY -- Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall said she would review the 60-plus defense exhibits submitted to the court by former downtown manager Don Buie's attorney Johnnie Graham over the Thanksgiving holiday and render a decision on whether his trial should be moved outside of Dougherty County sometime next week.

During a hearing Wednesday morning at the Dougherty County Jail, Graham argued that Buie's chances of getting a fair and impartial jury had been significantly affected by the sheer amount of media coverage his case has garnered since city officials announced he was the focus of an investigation back in June.

"We ask the court to consider these exhibits in regard to the issue at hand," Graham told Marshal during the hearing. We believe that the pre-trial publicity has affected the potential jury pool in Dougherty County."

Buie, his wife Shanon, Nicole Quenell Brown and downtown business owner Tim Washington have each been indicted in connection with an investigation into Buie's dealings as CEO of the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority.

Buie's trial has tentatively been set for December 14, Graham said, but Marshall said she is concerned that if the motion for a change of venue is granted that there would be no way to impanel a jury in another jurisdiction by that date.

The court is trying to adhere to Buie's demand for a speedy trial, which limits the amount of time that can elapse before a trial starts.

If the change is granted, both Graham and Chief Assistant District Attorney Chris Cohilas said they would consider three possible locations: Brunswick in Glynn County, Macon in Bibb County and Fort Valley in Peach County.

Buie was not in the courtroom at the Dougherty County Jail where his hearing took place Wednesday, choosing instead to waive his right to appear. Marshall denied media requests to allow cameras in the courtroom for the hearing.

Graham subpoenaed three people: WALB-TV News Director Rick Williams, WALB-TV News Reporter Karen Cohilas -- the wife of the prosecutor -- and WFXL-TV News Reporter Jana Barnello to testify during the hearing Wednesday. But Williams and Cohilas submitted a sworn affidavit in lieu of testimony.

In her statements to the court, Barnello testified that she began covering what would become the Don Buie investigation July 1 and continued until Tuesday, saying that in total, she had submitted 15 stories about Buie's investigation, indictment and arrest.

In the WALB affidavit, which was read into the record by Graham, Williams wrote that, like WFXL, WALB had written many stories about the incident and that the station reached roughly 37,000 households in Dougherty County.

Additionally, Graham tendered into evidence a binder containing more than 60 articles published in the Albany Herald, the Albany Journal, and online on the WALB and WFXL Web sites.

Specifically, Graham pointed to four specific articles -- 3, 50, 51 and 52 -- as examples of the prejudice that local media have cast upon Buie during the course of their coverage.

Exhibit 3, an opinion column written by Albany Herald Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher, "described a man whose alleged misdeeds have set redevelopment efforts in Albany's inner city back a few decades."

The other three -- 50, 51 and 52 -- were news stories reported by WALB's Karen Cohilas which Graham said contained words like "theft of public money," which she said increased the notoriety of her client in the eyes of the general populous.

"During these reported news stories they note that this person has stolen public funds and lots of it and that he is somehow notorious," Graham said.

Christopher Cohilas proposed a possible compromise to the court that would keep the trial in Dougherty County but would expand the pool from which a jury would be selected to sit in judgment of Buie and would require each juror to say -- under oath -- how much, if anything, he or she has heard about Buie.

"Some people in this community don't pay any attention to the local media or put any stock into what they say," Christopher Cohilas said.

Graham backed away from that compromise saying that people, regardless of instruction from the court, would try and find out about the case whether they knew about it beforehand or not once they are seated on the jury, and that would jeopardize Buie's right to a fair trial.

"Human nature is human nature," she said. "You can't just put this kind of stuff out of your mind, especially when they have been deluged with this amount of prejudicial information."

Christopher Cohilas argued that the fact that local media had covered the incident didn't mean it had been inherently prejudicial.

Pointing to an article written in The Albany Herald before Buie was fired but after questions concerning facade grant reimbursements made to Washington's downtown Dollar Square store arose, Christopher Cohilas said that much of the coverage had been fair, saying that the article was written almost entirely from Buie's perspective on the reimbursements.

Marshall agreed.

"The fact that there was media coverage, in and of itself, does not prove prejudice," Marshall said. "... The court will review the exhibits tendered by the defense and make a ruling, but for now I'll reserve a decision until we voir dire (jury impaneling)."