JEFFERSONVILLE — Joseph Oberhansley, accused of killing and mutilating his ex-girlfriend in Jeffersonville in 2014, has again been deemed competent for trial.
Jury selection is scheduled to start Sept. 8 in the now six-year-old case, with the jury pool coming from Allen County. Oberhansley was charged in September 2014 with murder, rape and burglary in connection with the death of 46-year-old Tammy Jo Blanton, who was found dead Sept, 11, 2014 at her Locust Street home with sharp force trauma injuries to her face, neck and chest.
Oberhansley was previously found incompetent for trial in January after evaluations by two psychologists and taken to Logansport State Hospital in May. The move to Logansport State Hospital was delayed due to restrictions from COVID-19.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors met Tuesday for a Zoom hearing with Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael after a call the court received Friday notifying that the defendant has had competency restored during the Logansport stay.
Court staff said 640 jurors will be called; it is estimated the trial will last about three weeks.
“I’m thrilled that we’re advancing toward trial again on the matter,” Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said after the hearing.
“This is a case that needs to be tried and there needs to be closure for the family. So I’m happy that after this delay that we’re close to getting the defendant to trial again.”
This is the second time Oberhansley has undergone competency restoration in this case. He was first found incompetent in October 2017, taken to Logansport in January 2018, and deemed competent in July.
Although his defense team soon thereafter filed a motion stating that he had continued to be “suspicious, paranoid, agitated and uncommunicative” since his return that year, Judge Carmichael later ruled him to be fit for trial based on reports from three mental health professionals.
An initial trial began last August, which was cut short when a mistrial was called the first day after a witness spoke on the stand on information both sides had previously agreed would not be brought to the jury.
With the high-profile case, attorneys had sought a jury pool outside of Southern Indiana, selecting jurors for the first trial from Hamilton County. When that ended in a mistrial, the parties agreed to do voir dire in St. Joseph County, but that was changed to Allen County this year because St. Joseph County had a trial already scheduled and did not want to deplete its jury pool.
Lead defense attorney Brent Westerfeld expressed concern during the Tuesday meeting about selecting from Allen County, where he said positive COVID-19 cases have grown by about 800 in several weeks. He also questioned whether a trial of this complexity could be fair when the virus may impact the jury pool or procedures during trial.
“I’m very concerned about trying to push a trial on a complex case like this under the current circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” Westerfeld said after the hearing.
“I’m concerned about the willingness of people to serve on a jury and making sure we have a fair cross-section of the community to select jurors from.”
Judge Carmichael said the court is taking precautions to maximize safety of all involved. During the trial, jurors will be seated in the gallery area of the Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 courtroom, which is larger and will allow them to spread out instead of sitting in the jury box used in more traditional times. Masks will be required and gloves available, so the jurors may handle evidence. Attorneys, the judge and the witness stand will be behind a clear plastic shield, with witnesses able to remove their mask at times.
Due to the setup of the courtroom and current temporary restrictions due to COVID-19, spectators will not be allowed to be present during the trial. However, it will be live streamed via the Indiana Supreme Court website.
Attorneys will discuss final motions in the case during the next hearing, which is now set for Aug. 31.