The lawyer for a man accused of killing a Catholic priest says his client can't get a fair trial in Mississippi because a campaign commercial in the state attorney general's race said he murdered the cleric in cold blood.
Brian Alexander represents Jeremy Wayne Manieri, who is charged in the July 11 death of the Rev. Ed Everitt of Hammond, La. Authorities say the Louisiana priest was robbed and fatally shot at a beach house in Waveland, Miss. Manieri allegedly told authorities he shot the priest after passing out drunk and high and waking up to find Everitt fondling him.
A commercial for Attorney General Jim Hood shows a picture of Manieri while a voice says Hood's campaign opponent, former judge Steve Simpson, let a "child molester" out of jail and he later "murdered a 70-year-old priest in cold blood."
Hood, the incumbent Democrat, defeated Republican Simpson in Tuesday's election after a bitter campaign.
Alexander, a Bay St. Louis attorney, said the Hood commercial tainted the prospective jury pool in Mississippi because viewers were "instructed by the Attorney General that Jeremy Manieri is a cold-blooded murderer when he has yet to even be indicted on any charge, much less murder."
"It's a clear violation of his oath as attorney general, as an elected public official and as a member of the Mississippi Bar," Alexander said in telephone interview Thursday. "He has all but ensured that my client cannot receive a fair trial in the state of Mississippi. He has not only eroded the presumption of innocence _ attendant to all those who stand accused _ he destroyed it."
Hood's office referred questions to his campaign manager, Jonathan Compretta. Compretta said the ad was paid for by Hood's campaign but refused to discuss publically it beyond a written statement.
"This ad did not name the defendant and merely stated facts from media reports," Compretta said. "If the defendant wants a change of venue, then he should file his motion before the court at the proper time instead of trying his case in the media. He is manipulating members of the media in an attempt to get more pretrial publicity to bolster his case."
Alexander responded that it was Hood's campaign that brought pretrial attention to the case for political gain.
"The concept of `pretrial' is apparently a concept with which the Hood campaign has only recently become familiar," Alexander said.
Alexander said the ads were aired in the last two weeks of the campaign and he waited until after the election to complain because he didn't want to be seen as a "political lackey" trying to influence voters. After consulting Manieri and his family, Alexander said he's considering filing complaints with the Mississippi Bar and the Mississippi Ethics Commission. Hood's brother is the executive director of the Ethics Commission, and would likely be asked to recuse himself.
Matt Steffey, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law, said the campaign ad is troublesome, but there may not be much Alexander can do about it.
"The tone and tenor of political advertisements is increasingly troublesome. For the attorney general's campaign to make a statement prior to indictment is problematic, but I don't know if it amounts to an ethics violation," Steffey said.
"The bottom line is this: At best that would be fodder for a defendant's motion to change venue. That essentially will fall on the discretion of the trial judge," Steffey added.
Mississippi State University political scientist Marty Wiseman said the ad may be unfortunate, but it's not nearly the worst he's seen, and it's not likely to be corrected.
"When you are a public figure, you can interpret things anyway you want to. There's always a reluctance to control freedom of speech, and in this case he could say it was an opinion," Wiseman said.
Authorities say Manieri did construction work at the house, which Everitt and others used as a beach retreat. He allegedly shot Everitt with the priest's own .380-caliber pistol, then picked up his ex-wife and kids in Everitt's car and set out for a Disney vacation. Florida authorities arrested Manieri at a hotel near Winter Haven, Fla.
Florida police said Manieri confessed to shooting Everitt, allegedly claiming the two men drank and smoked marijuana together before Manieri passed out on a couch. Manieri allegedly said he woke up to the priest fondling him.
Alexander said confessions are often excluded from trial, so Hood's campaign shouldn't use the alleged confession to defend the commercial.
The campaign ad portrayed Simpson as weak on crime based on the 2006 case in which Manieri pleaded guilty to molesting a girl.
Simpson, a former Circuit Court judge, sentenced Manieri to two years, but suspended one year and gave him credit for time served, according to court records. Manieri was required to register as a sex offender.
Simpson has said prosecutors reached a plea agreement in the case, so he didn't have access to the evidence and based the sentence on the prosecuting attorney's recommendation.
"If you run for office, and you have anything in your past, even if it's a parking ticket, somebody is going to find out and embellish it," Wiseman said.
Everitt was pastor of Holy Ghost Church in Hammond, La., and Our Lady of Pompeii Church in nearby Tickfaw. The Dominicans, a Roman Catholic order, operate the churches and a school in the community about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans.