MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A judge has postponed the civil rights trial of a West Virginia sheriff accused of beating a bank robbery suspect, giving his defense lawyers time to survey potential jurors and decide whether pre-trial publicity justifies a change-of-venue request.
U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey ruled Tuesday that Jefferson County Sheriff Robert Shirley's lawyers had good cause to request the delay. The trial had been set to begin Jan. 22 in Martinsburg.
The motion came after prosecutors filed public documents with proposed evidence that they said shows Shirley had abused his power before -- and gotten away with it.
The filing included a transcript of testimony Shirley gave during a 2004 sentencing hearing in an unrelated case. In it, he admitted firing a gun while on duty during a personal dispute with another man.
That transcript, which shows the shooting never resulted in criminal charges or prosecution, "is evidence of defendant's readiness to abuse the power of his position," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Camilletti wrote in a notice filed with the court last week.
But Shirley's attorney, Kevin Mills, called the public revelation of a decades-old incident "highly inflammatory and presumably inadmissible." Besides ignoring Shirley's "long history of dedicated community service," he argued, the government's filing and media coverage about it could compromise his client's right to a fair trial.
Shirley has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and vowed he will be vindicated.
"The result of this public filing is a poisoning of the pool of potential jurors right before the jury is slated to be picked," his lawyer wrote. He added that witnesses would now have to be re-interviewed.
"There are a myriad of prejudicial effects flowing from the government waiting until the eve of trial to dump all this information into the local and national presses," Mills argued.
Prosecutors could have opted for a closed filing, Mills said, to let the court rule on admissibility of the evidence "but for reasons unknown to the defense, they chose not to."