The lawyer for a man accused of killing a Catholic priest before setting out on a Disney vacation says his client can't get a fair trial in Mississippi because a campaign ad for the state's attorney general had called the suspect a cold-blooded murderer.
Brian Alexander represents Jeremy Wayne Manieri, who is charged with murder but hasn't been indicted, in the July 11 death of the Rev. Ed Everitt. Authorities say the priest was robbed and killed at a beach house in Waveland, Miss. Manieri allegedly told authorities he shot the priest after passing out from drinking and waking up to Everitt fondling him.
A commercial for Attorney General Jim Hood shows a picture of Manieri while a voice says Hood's opponent, former judge Steve Simpson, let a "child molester" out of jail and he "murdered a 70-year-old priest in cold blood."
Hood's campaign was referring to a 2006 case in which Manieri pleaded guilty to molesting a girl. Simpson, then a circuit court judge, sentenced Manieri to two years, but suspended one and gave him credit for time served, court records said. Simpson has said his decision was based on prosecutors' recommendation in a plea agreement.
Hood, the Democratic incumbent, defeated Republican Simpson in Tuesday's election for another four-year term.
Alexander said Hood has significant influence as Mississippi's top prosecutor and the commercial tainted prospective jurors because viewers were "instructed by the Attorney General that Jeremy Manieri is a cold-blooded murderer when he has yet to even be indicted."
"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 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 ... he destroyed it."
Hood's office referred questions to campaign manager Jonathan Compretta.
"This ad did not name the defendant and merely stated facts from media reports," Compretta said in a statement. "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 campaign's 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 campaign's final weeks and he waited until after the election to complain because he didn't want people to think he was trying to influence voters. Alexander said he consulted with Manieri and is 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 he was concerned by the campaign ad.
"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."
Mississippi State University political scientist Marty Wiseman said the ad, while unfortunate, is not likely to be corrected.
"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 performed construction work for Everitt at the beach retreat. He allegedly shot Everitt with the priest's own pistol, then picked up his ex-wife and her kids in Everitt's car and set out for a Disney vacation. He was arrested near Winter Haven, Fla.
Florida police said Manieri confessed to shooting Everitt after the priest allegedly fondled him. Alexander said confessions are often excluded from trial, so Hood's campaign shouldn't use it to defend the commercial. It's not clear when a grand jury will convene in the case. Grand juries proceedings are secret by design.
Everitt was pastor of Holy Ghost Church in Hammond, La., and Our Lady of Pompeii Church in nearby Tickfaw, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans.