JEFFERSONVILLE — A mistrial has been declared in the high-profile murder case of Joseph Oberhansley, the latest in a series of bizarre and surprising events dating back to Oberhansley's arrest nearly five years ago.
It was just hours into the first day of testimony in a five-year-old murder case when Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael called for the mistrial Thursday, after a state's witness gave information on the stand that had previously been ruled inadmissible to the jury.
Attorneys will now have to select a new jury — the process will begin Sept. 4 — in the case of Oberhansley, charged with the murder, rape and home burglary of his ex-girlfriend, Tammy Jo Blanton, in September 2014. State and defense attorneys spent all day Monday and Tuesday in Hamilton County to select the 15 jurors for the trial.
"I hate that there's going to be a delay in this case but it should be a short delay," Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said after court had adjourned. He said while pretrial publicity could make it more challenging to find jurors without prior knowledge of the case, "There's no question in my mind that we'll make short work out of that again, get a good jury pool and be back here in Clark County," he said.
Mull had been questioning the third state's witness, Donna Victoria, Thursday morning — who had been a friend and coworker to Blanton — when the witness gave information she had been instructed not to say to the jury.
The woman said Blanton had stayed overnight at her house days before her murder, because she was afraid of Oberhansley. She said Blanton confided in her that the weekend before she was killed on Sept. 11, that the defendant had held her captive in her house and raped her.
When Mull asked why she hadn't called the police, the woman testified that Blanton hadn't wanted Oberhansley to go back to prison or using drugs. Both topics had been ruled by Carmichael to be things the jury would not be informed of in the case, due to potentially causing unfair bias with outside information.
"Any time that word (prison) is said in a trial you know things have just went bad," Mull said. "I do prepare all of the witnesses before they testify; in no uncertain terms I tell them you cannot talk abut certain things or we very well might have a mistrial.
"Unfortunately that's what happened today."
The jury was briefly dismissed from the courtroom and defense attorney Bart Betteau made the oral motion for mistrial, telling the judge the jury would now be "thinking about drug use" and attributing those factors to the crime. The bigger issue to him, however, was the mentioning of past crimes.
"She also brought up prison reform, so now they know he has a criminal background," Betteau said in court. "There's no way that we can counteract those things. If a jury hears about a previous crime, you can't get it out of your mind."
While Mull initially said in court he thought an admonishment to the jury would suffice — in which the judge instructs jurors to disregard information that has been illegally presented or stricken from the record after being presented — all parties were in agreement that a mistrial was the best route when court resumed after lunch.
With the jury out of the courtroom, Carmichael asked Betteau to again state the reason for his request.
"He can't get a fair trial," Betteau said. "The skunk is in the jury box."
Mull said he wants to avoid any issues that could arise in the future, such as the case being overturned.
"As much as I would like to stand up and argue, the fact of the matter is that if we do that and get a conviction and it gets overturned later because of this — which is a high probability with this sort of evidence — then we could be back in this same [place] again of having trial settings year after year after year," Mull said after the hearing.
"[This is] a setback, but we'll definitely move forward to get justice for this family."
After Carmichael made her ruling in the afternoon, the jury was brought back in and told that they would be released from duty and back in Hamilton County within several hours. Several gasped or otherwise showed surprise, and they were soon led out of the courtroom.
Lead defense attorney Brent Westerfeld said after the hearing that what had happened in court was "very much a letdown. I've been with this case since the beginning and I was hoping to see it end this month."
However, he said the defense motion was very important to preserve the objectivity of the jury.
"The references that were made are significant," he said. "A lot of jury members can be affected by that so it was important that a mistrial was granted so that ultimately the people who decide this case do not hear information that is inadmissible and irrelevant to the ultimate finding."
— Staff reporter John Boyle contributed to this story.