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Murder trial to stay in county

Accused murderer Tom Wilcox will stand trial in Lawrence County and be judged guilty or innocent by a jury of fellow Lawrence Countians, Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Charles Cooper ruled Friday.

Wilcox, 38, of Ironton, is accused of assaulting and then killing his estranged wife, Amy, by setting her on fire.

His defense counsel, Charles Knight and William Eachus, had asked Cooper to move the trial elsewhere to ensure Wilcox will get a fair trial.

While Knight and Eachus’ request was one sentence, they stapled to the request a roughly half-inch thick stack of newspaper clippings and news photographs published since late April when the alleged incident occurred.

But the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which has been appointed special prosecutor in the case, asked Cooper to deny the request, saying such a move would be premature.

The OAG’s response was that while Ohio law allows for change of venue, state law “does not require a change of venue merely because of extensive pretrial publicity.

“It is within sound discretion of the trial court to determine whether a change of venue is necessary.” In that response, special prosecutor Paul Scarsella further pointed out that the Ohio Supreme Court has previously held that “the fact that prospective jurors have been exposed to pretrial publicity does not, in and of itself, demonstrate prejudice” and that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “pretrial publicity, even pervasive, adverse publicity — does not inevitably lead to an unfair trial.”

Scarsella said the effects of pretrial publicity, if there is any, can be remedied by careful interviews with prospective jurors during jury selection.

In the end, Cooper agreed.

“The Court, at this time, cannot say that the defendant cannot receive a fair and impartial trial from jurors selected from Lawrence County residents,” Cooper wrote in his ruling. He agreed however to reconsider the matter if, during jury selection, a fair and impartial jury can’t be seated.

This was one of 87 rulings Cooper has made in the case that has been scheduled for trial in March of next year. Cooper said the other motions were generally perfunctory.

Both sides will be allowed to call expert witnesses.

All pretrial conferences will be on the record and in open court. A verbal motion by the defense to exclude photographers from the courtroom was remedied when, early on, Cooper ruled Wilcox may appear in court in civilian clothing and without shackles, thus eliminating concerns that media coverage of the trial would make him appear guilty. That verbal motion was never submitted in written form.

Tom Wilcox is accused of going to his estranged wife’s home and assaulting her and then setting her on fire. Amy Wilcox died in a Cincinnati hospital less than two months later.

Tom Wilcox was also allegedly burned during the late April incident. He spent several weeks in a Louisville, Ky., hospital before being returned to Lawrence County to face charges in connection with the case.