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Wood County officials mull trial locations

PARKERSBURG — County officials are still looking into alternative venues to conduct upcoming trials.

Wood County Commissioner Robert Tebay on Thursday asked Wood County Prosecutor Pat Lefebure if court officials have given any more consideration to holding trials at the Smoot Theatre in Parkersburg.

Lefebure said the information has been passed to the circuit judges to consider with at least one showing interest in the idea.

“All three judges have murder trials set in the coming months,” Lefebure said. “It will be up to the judges.”

At a previous meeting, Lefebure told the Wood County Commission that the courts were going to need a larger venue to accommodate a lot of people while maintaining social distancing guidelines and other health concerns during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The current courtrooms in the Shaver Judicial Building are too small to accommodate the people needed.

The Boreman Meeting Room at the Black Annex has been used for grand jury proceedings.

Lefebure said the Boreman Room was not big enough for trials for people to properly distance and the other precautions when trying to seat a jury.

In many cases, especially murders, there is a lot of publicity around a case and they would need over 60 people to question and review to get down to a jury of 12 impartial people who can serve.

Also, during murder cases there are family members on both sides who want to be in the court to watch the proceedings, which can range from five to 20 people on each side.

Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said he believed the state would likely pay the cost to rent the venue as a part of its COVID response efforts designed to keep governmental operations going.

Tebay said the leadership at the theater was interested in the possibility of doing trials as their performance schedule has taken a hit during the pandemic.

Court officials would have to inspect the space to make sure security and other concerns could be handled, commissioners said.

Lefebure said the trial of Billy Ray Johnson Jr. is tentatively scheduled before Judge Robert Waters on March 15.

Johnson is accused of the murder of his brother Kenneth Wayne Arnott in November 2019. Johnson was charged with first-degree murder after Wood County Sheriff’s deputies and West Virginia State Police responded to a reported domestic dispute at Johnson’s 2993 Staunton Turnpike residence outside Parkersburg city limits. Arnott, was found at the scene, stabbed.

In other business, the commission announced the vacancy on the 4th Circuit Public Defender Board and put Susan Barber in nomination for the position.

Contact Brett Dunlap at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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