Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

January 31, 2014

Spaulding trial could see possible venue change due to area response

PRINCETON — Arguing that Bluefield Daily Telegraph readers had already convicted his client, an attorney representing a Mercer County man facing charges including sexual assault and possession of child pornography urged a circuit court judge Thursday to grant a change of venue.

John Spaulding, 40, of Montcalm was arrested in October 2013 and charged with five counts of sexual assault first degree, one count of attempt to commit a felony, one count of sexual abuse first degree, and 50 counts of possession of material depicting minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. The two victims were ages 3 and 14, Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash said when the charges were filed.

Defense attorney Harold B. Wolfe III argued Thursday before Circuit Court Judge William Sadler that extensive media coverage would keep Spaulding from getting a fair trial in Mercer County. Daily Telegraph Editor Samantha Perry and another local media representative submitted copies of stories and other materials subpoenaed by the court.

“This case has generated much more publicity and comment in the social media than any murder case I’ve heard,” Wolfe said. “The social media pretty much universally condemns Mr. Spaulding, and convicts him before we have submitted the first piece of evidence.”

Wolfe said the number of social media comments about Spaulding’s case had “exploded” in recent weeks. He had not had time to survey potential jurors about their current opinions on the case.

A column written by Perry, which appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 26, edition of the Daily Telegraph, represented the public’s attitude toward making plea agreements with defendants like his client, Wolfe said, introducing the column as evidence. The column did not include Spaulding’s case.

Wolfe then argued the extent of media coverage and social media comment focused on the case means that Spaulding cannot get a fair trial in Mercer County. He pointed out the related case of Kimberly Cox, 38, of Nemours, who was sentenced by Judge Sadler on Jan. 13. Cox’s attorney, Gerald Hayden, said during the hearing that Spaulding had influenced Cox.

Cox had pleaded guilty to sexual assault first degree and sexual abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian. Sadler sentenced her 15 to 35 years for sexual assault in the first degree and 10 to 20 years for sexual abuse by a parent or guardian. The sentences will run consecutively. Cox must serve 25 calendar years before she is eligible for parole, said Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash after the sentencing. If she were to serve the maximum number of years, 55, she could be eligible for parole in 27-and-a-half years, Ash said.

Sadler said Jan. 13, before sentencing Cox, that he doubted she was ever “under the spell,” of John Spaulding. She also had a tendency to “concoct tales not based on fact.”

“I don’t think at any time she was under his spell,” Sadler said. “At times, Spaulding was under her spell.”

A story about Spaulding, and Sadler’s ruling that certain evidence was admissible in his case, appeared with Cox’s sentencing on the Daily Telegraph’s front page on Jan. 14.

Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler during Thursday’s venue hearing said potential jurors could be questioned about what they know of the case and whether they had formed any opinions. There is no way to determine whether what was said on social media prejudiced potential jurors against Spaulding, he added.

Sadler said he would take the change of venue motion under advisement. The court would attempt to impanel a jury, but reconsider the venue motion if one cannot be formed.

“However, I’m not convinced we won’t be able to impanel a jury,” Sadler said.

Spaulding’s trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 4.

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