Jury selection begins next week in the murder trial of James Richard Huffman IV, who is charged in the New Year’s 2014 death of Michael Hogg of Kingscreek in downtown Whitesburg.
Huffman and Patrick Smith, also of Pike County, both face trial in the case. Smith, an ex-Marine, is charged with complicity to murder for allegedly holding Hogg down while Huffman allegedly stabbed him once in the chest, once in the throat and six times in the back.
Two other men were injured in the altercation, which occurred near a parking lot on Hayes Street. David Christopher Puckett of Jenkins was stabbed once in the back. Stacy Phillips of Thornton was wounded in the hand. In addition to murder, Huffman is charged with first-degree assault and second-degree assault in relation to those injuries.
Smith is also charged with criminal mischief for allegedly cutting the tires on the Jeep driven by Samantha Mullins of Wise, Va., in which she, Hogg, Puckett and Phillips were riding. Smith and Huffman were arrested in the parking lot of the Letcher County Recreation Center, where Mullins hid her Jeep and called 911 after determining she could not drive the three men to the hospital because of four flat tires.
Special Letcher Circuit Judge Kent Hendrickson has called in an additional 30 jurors who had been selected for District Court for preliminary questioning in attempt to seat a jury.
Defense attorneys asked last week to question each juror individually, however Hendrickson overruled the request. The judge said he would ask general questions of the jurors as a group first in order to weed them out ahead of any individual questioning. In answer to defense attorney Robert Wright’s question of whether he was “certainly going to let us follow up,” Hendrickson said he would, but those followups are “subject to my authority to limit time and get this going.”
Defense attorneys earlier had sought a change of venue, arguing that a jury could not be seated in Letcher County because of pretrial publicity. Last June, Wright subpoenaed several Facebook users to court to explain why they “liked” or commented on a post calling for Huffman’s trial to be held in the county.
Last week, the defense asked for a new jury pool of residents from all over the county because, it says, the majority of jurors in the current pool are from within a mile of the crime scene. Hendrickson asked for a written motion based on the information in the juror qualification forms, but said he did not intend to act on it now.
“I fail to see why the urbane people of Whitesburg would be better informed or have seen more publicity than anyone else in the county,” Hendrickson said.
The court also held a telephone conference Friday on Huffman’s competency to stand trial. The courtroom was closed during the conference with the psychologist, however the case is set proceed as planned.
The trial is expected to take several days, and Hendrickson has asked attorneys and family members of the victim and accused not to speak to the press, though he said he was not ordering them not to. He also said he has not made up his mind whether he will allow cameras in the courtroom. Cameras are generally allowed in courtrooms in Kentucky.