By CHRIS MORRIS
NEW ALBANY —
Floyd County Superior Court No. 1 Judge Susan Orth has granted a continuance in the first of three upcoming murder trials for William Clyde Gibson III.
The trial in the murder of 75-year-old Christine Whitis was slated to begin July 15, but Orth scheduled jury selection to now start Sept. 23. She made the decision Tuesday morning.
Gibson, 54, formerly of the 800 block of Woodbourne Drive in New Albany, will be tried separately in the murders of Whitis, Karen Hodella, 45, and Stephanie Kirk, 35. In the deaths of Whitis and Kirk, Gibson faces the death penalty.
Whitis was found strangled in Gibson’s garage April 19, 2012, and Kirk, who had been missing, was found buried in his backyard eight days later. Hodella was found murdered near the Ohio River in January 2003. She had been missing since October 2002.
The jury will be selected from Dearborn County residents. More than 800 questionnaires were mailed to potential jurors there.
Both the defense and prosecution argued their case in front of Orth on Tuesday morning. Floyd County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Steve Owen told the court that the defense has had ample time to put a case together and there had already been three continuances granted. He said it’s time for the trial to begin.
“We do not want to impede the ability of the defense to prepare a proper case, but I do think there is a reason why the defense does not want this case to go to trial quickly,” Owen said. “But we can’t ignore what this is doing to other people involved in the case. It’s hard for me to tell the victims there is a trial date set, but a month before have to tell them it’s not going to happen. Justice delayed sometimes is justice denied.”
Public defense attorney Patrick Biggs said his defense team needs more time since it does not have the luxury of having police agencies collect evidence and help with the investigation like the prosecution does.
“It takes time to get ready for a case like this. We are talking about three cases here,” Biggs said. “We can’t control where the witnesses live or if they don’t want to talk to us.”
In making her decision, Orth said it’s important that both sides have more than enough time to be prepared since all murder cases involving the death penalty are heavily scrutinized by the state’s supreme court.
“If we are cautious up front, we can be rewarded on the back side,” she said. “This case is barely a year old and a case of this magnitude, I feel like we are ahead of schedule.”
After the hearing, Mike Whitis, son of Christine Whitis, said Orth’s ruling was “not totally unexpected.”
“We are ready to move forward,” he told reporters outside of the courtroom. “I feel like this is an ongoing tactic by the defense ... a stall tactic. We understand that we have to jump through hoops to make sure he gets a fair trail.”
He said there is not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think of his slain mother. He hopes this continuance will be the last one granted.
“It’s not in my control ... I can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Owen said he was not surprised by the ruling, but wanted to make sure his objection was heard.
“We are ready to go right now,” he said afterward. “I don’t know what they need more time for; we know we are ready to go.”
Owen said it’s important for the families in the three murder cases to have closure. The jury selection for Gibson’s second murder trial is scheduled for January.
“When you prepare a victim for a trial like this, they get their hopes up and get prepared mentally. He [Mike Whitis] was ready to go to trial. It’s like a roller coaster for him. They are looking to the justice system to provide some kind of comfort.”