Woodward, Okla. —
Things appear to be on track for the second degree murder trial against David Lee Yelloweagle to proceed in a couple of weeks.
The jury trial is set to begin at 9 a.m. on Aug. 20 at the Woodward County Courthouse.
Yelloweagle was charged in June 2011 with second degree murder for allegedly participating along with co-defendants Dillan Shane Hager and Jeffery Shawn Spencer in an assault on 20-year-old Jon Michael Watkins, which authorities believe led to Watkins' death in Sept. 2010. The 3 men were accused of beating Watkins to death.
Yelloweagle appeared in court Wednesday morning for a pre-trial hearing in the case.
During the hearing, his defense attorney Peter L. Scimeca argued several motions regarding certain types of evidence he wanted to include or exclude from presentation during the trial.
District Judge Ray Dean Linder granted one motion to exclude testimony about certain unrelated activities that Yelloweagle engaged in shortly after Watkins' death, after agreeing with Scimeca that such testimony could be unfairly prejudicial against Yelloweagle.
"The possibility of the likelihood that this could cause prejudice is a concern for the court," Linder said as he granted the motion to exclude the testimony.
However, he said his approval "may be subject to change based on what develops during the trial."
The judge denied a second motion to exclude other potential hearsay testimony after Scimeca said he withdrew the request because he agreed with the state that it may be premature.
"I agree, if the state does not ask those hearsay questions, then it's not a problem," Scimeca said.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Boring said that Scimeca can raise an objection to testimony during trial and the judge can decide then whether or not it is hearsay and therefore inadmissible.
In a third motion, Scimeca said his client requested that the jury be allowed to view the field where Yelloweagle's group of friends had been riding through in a pickup with Watkins in the bed of the truck around the time of Watkins' death. Watkins' body was then left in the bed of the truck until his death was reported to the authorities several hours later.
Judge Linder suggested that Scimeca find a way of taking video of the area instead, stating it would be "difficult to transport 12 jurors and maybe 2 alternates" out to the field which is located south of Woodward.
In yet another motion, the defense argued to exclude testimony from a blood spatter expert about the blood splatter present in the bed of the pickup where Watkins' body was found.
If not excluded, Scimeca said at the very least he wanted to make the court aware of a possible issue with the expert's testimony.
"The pickup in question was rained on and we don't know if that information was made available to the expert," he said.
He argued that the rain would have contaminated the crime scene evidence in the bed of the truck, including the blood spatter.
Scimeca requested that the judge take time prior to the expert's testimony during the trial to review the sufficiency of the facts in question and determine whether the expert's opinion was based on knowledge that the truck had been rained upon.
However, Linder didn't seem to think it was appropriate to wait until the trial to answer the question about the expert's knowledge about the environmental impacts on the crime scene.
"Is there some reason we can't arrange a deposition of the expert prior to the trial to answer these questions," the judge asked.
As an attorney with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, Scimeca said he was concerned about the costs of arranging a deposition.
Linder encouraged him to meet with the ADA and try to set up the deposition anyway, but said if it turned out that the deposition would generate a "significant expense" then Scimeca could re-file the motion to exclude the expert's testimony.
Outside of his evidentiary motions, Scimeca also presented an application for writ of habeus corpus ad tetificandum, requesting that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections release Hager into the custody of the Woodward County Sheriff's Office for the purposes of being allowed to testify on behalf of the defense in the trial.
Hager is currently serving a 20-year sentence at Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville after he pled guilty to second degree murder in January 2012 for his involvement in the attack on Watkins.
Scimeca told The News that "he (Hager) is looking forward to telling the truth in the aid of Yelloweagle's defense."
Spencer, the third co-defendant in the case, is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution during the trial. He is included on the state's witness list and previously testified during Yelloweagle's preliminary hearing, where he was bound over for the second degree murder trial.
ARRAIGNMENT IN SECOND CASE
In addition to the pre-trial hearing in the murder case against him, Yelloweagle also appeared in court Wednesday for arraignment in a second case related to Watkins' death.
In September 2012, Yelloweagle was charged with a felony count of encouraging a minor to commit or participate in manslaughter in the first degree. This charge alleges that Yelloweagle encouraged and/or failed to stop the then 17-year-old Spencer from participating in the attack on Watkins.
Spencer pled guilty to first degree manslaughter in connection with the case in Feb. 2012. He received a 15-year sentence, but only served 1 year in the Woodward County Jail and is currently serving the remaining 14-year suspended sentence.
Yelloweagle was bound over for a second trial in that case in March 2013.
His arraignment hearing Wednesday was held for the purposes of entering a plea with regards to the charge of encouraging a minor to commit manslaughter.
But Yelloweagle stood mute Wednesday and Judge Linder had to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf.
Scimeca said his client reserves the right to "seek a motion to challenge the sufficiency of the bind over" in the second case. The attorney doesn't believe that sufficient evidence was presented at the preliminary hearing in March to justify the case proceeding.
Nevertheless, the judge went ahead and reserved 3 days in November for a potential trial date in the case, should the defendant's challenge fail.
Linder said that Yelloweagle had the option to combine both cases and have them tried together.
However, Scimeca said that Yelloweagle "is insisting on 2 separate trials."