No one saw a single smile from Shelia Eddy in court today. What we did see was a bespectacled teenager wearing an updo who looked much younger than when she last appeared in court.
My own guess is that Eddy, who turned 18 on Sept. 28, got a quick lesson in appropriate courtroom body language from her defense attorney when she pled not guilty on Sept. 17 to killing Skylar Neese in July 2012. Whether from nervousness or a simple lack of awareness of how she appeared to onlookers, in the first hearing Eddy didn’t appear to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Later, numerous photos of her smiling mug splashed the front pages of newspapers and online news media sites, and I imagine attorney Mike Benninger had a chat with his client about public perception. Today was different: one news photographer told me he didn’t see Eddy’s pearly whites even once.
Eddy, who told the judge she had given up her right to a speedy trial, was at the pretrial motions hearing this morning at 9:00 AM. As a result of today’s hearing, she will be back in court in early February 2014. Judge Russell Clawges set the date for the week of Feb. 11, but for that to happen, several other pre-trial motions filed by the defense must be heard first.
And Eddy must stay in jail as those motions play out, until she goes to trial. Benninger asked if, because of her age, Eddy might be shown some leniency and given home confinement instead. But the seriousness of the crime with which Eddy is charged trumps age and any other factor, according to Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown.
Clawges didn’t waste any time deciding whether to set bail, either: “No,” he ruled swiftly, before moving onto Benninger’s next motion. Among the numerous motions Benninger filed with the court on Oct. 1 was to have the trial moved to another county because of “substantial publicity and prejudice”; to bring in jurors from another area; to have Rachel Shoaf’s testimony suppressed, due to her supposed mental instability; and to have all the charges dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct.
Ashdown responded to the motions later that week, saying no misconduct occurred and disagreeing that Eddy’s chance at a fair trial has been hampered by excessive media reports. She said she didn’t object to the trial being delayed.
In support of those motions, Benninger told the court today that he’s just recently received the FBI’s report, which contains numerous “technical lab studies and photos.” In addition, he has “thousands of pages of documentation” that he says support his request to move the case out of Mon County.
Interestingly, Clawges also ruled against Benninger’s motion on behalf of his client to use jury questionnaires. Such questionnaires have become quite common in high-profile cases. (Think George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony.) They are also very time-consuming and seem, to me at least, to be a duplication of efforts. Any potential jurors are questioned to see if they might be prejudiced in some way—either for or against a defendant. Or if they can hear the case while knowing certain facts about it and still keep an open mind when ruling on a defendant’s innocence or guilt. This process is called voir dire, and it usually works very well.
Lawyers need to do their best to select jurors who can be impartial, and I believe twelve such jurors can be found right here in Mon County. Some days I meet people who know all about this case; other days the folks I run into haven’t even heard of it. (The other day I met someone who has followed it quite closely from the beginning; she said she would love to be a juror because it’s not clear to her who murdered Skylar.)
And the prosecution has gone to great lengths to prevent the media from revealing anything other than the absolute essential details that are only a matter of public record, anyway. Ashdown has held no press conferences, and there’s been no grandiose posturing about teen killers or the plight of today’s families. It’s all been very hush-hush and quiet, save for the online “gossip” sites some people seem to frequent these days. (Sites I wasn’t even aware existed until I started working on this story.) Oh, and mainstream social media have been a source of gossip, too, but as far as I can tell, that’s all rumor and speculation—nothing that reasonable people put much faith in.
With thorough voir dire, a jury can be impaneled that will ensure Eddy gets a fair trial—and this thing doesn’t drag on any longer than it must, adding to the pain so many people close to this case already feel.
Shoaf, who pled guilty to second-degree murder, is in a juvenile facility awaiting sentencing. Eddy is currently an inmate in a different juvenile facility.
UPDATE: Also of great interest today was Ashdown’s statement about Eddy facing additional charges in other jurisdictions. (The prosecutor looked directly at Eddy and her legal counsel when she said this, an action that was open to interpretation on many levels.)
Editor’s note: Berry and award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon), have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the book about Skylar Neese’s murder, which won’t be published until after the trial ends. If you have information about the case, please contact them using the contact form below.