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Attorneys for murder suspect believe fair trial isn’t possible in Dinwiddie

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DINWIDDIE – With the possibility of a second trial for the man charged with allegedly killing a Dinwiddie County teenager looming, his attorneys remain steadfast in their belief that their client will not be able to receive a fair trial within the county.

Their position was revealed in recent court filings where they sought to have Commonwealth and defense exhibits from last month’s multi-day trial sealed from public view as they anticipate the Commonwealth, led by prosecutor Ann Cabell Baskervill, will seek to retry Alberta native Anton Coleman for his alleged role in the death of 16-year-old Ke’Asia Adkins in June of 2018.

Just after the start of the year, a jury was seated in a trial that lasted several days before eventually ending a hung jury on Jan. 10, with Coleman being initially charged with first-degree murder before later being indicted on capital murder charges in January of 2019.

That charge would be amended in filings by Baskervill on January 2, 2020 from capital murder-abduction to second-degree murder, which was accepted by the court and reflected in court records.

The case dates back to the summer of 2018 when Adkins, a student at Dinwiddie High School, was reported missing by her family when she didn’t show up for cheerleading practice at the school on June 25.

Several days later after an extensive search and vigils where friends, family, and strangers gathered to pray for her safe return, authorities would find her body near her Sentry Hill Court home. Coleman, a relative to Adkins, according to published reports, was arrested and initially charged with one count of abduction before a grand jury would later indict him on first-degree murder and felony abduction with the intent to defile charges.

As the case proceeded through county courts, prosecutors would move forward with presenting their case for a capital murder charge against Coleman to the grand jury, with that body returning a true bill last year. At that time, Baskervill told The Dinwiddie Monitor they did not intend to seek the death penalty against Coleman for his alleged role in Adkins’ death, if convicted and her office was ready to move forward with the case.

“The evidentiary change … does increase the burden on the Commonwealth, but after having a chance to receive and evaluate our evidence, in filing the capital charge, obviously I am willing to pursue that link,” she said in January of last year. “There are some litigation risks with having that burden – risks which certainly informed the discretionary decision on charging – but as matters have developed, the balance on the scales shifted.”

Throughout 2019, a number of hearings were held in the case, including those relating to Coleman’s competency to stand trial and a defense motion to have a gag order placed on those involved in the case, which was granted by Judge Paul Cella in July of that year. That order barred all lawyers, law enforcement, and investigators from discussing the case with the media and the public at-large.

With the gag order in place, court filings and courtroom arguments have been one of the only ways to glean the position of prosecutors and Coleman’s defense team as the case advanced toward last month’s trial. A motion filed in November of last year showed Coleman’s legal representatives believe a fair trial for their client isn’t attainable in Dinwiddie and they sought to have the case moved to another locality.

In that filing, his attorneys argued that media coverage of the case, dating back to when Adkins went missing in June of 2018, to Coleman’s arrest and eventual indictment by a county grand jury in connection with his alleged role in her death, through hearings leading up to last month’s trial have caused “irreparable damage to Coleman’s due process rights should the trial remain in Dinwiddie.”

“Unlike many other highly publicized trials, Mr. Coleman’s case has largely been and remains an intensely local story,” they said. “Potential jurors in Dinwiddie will be familiar with the case, while citizens elsewhere in the Commonwealth can reasonably be expected to be unfamiliar with the facts, making a change of venue practical and appropriate.”

They continue, “Potential jurors, as residents of Dinwiddie, will have an interest in favor of Ke’Asia Adkins at the expense of the defendant's due process rights. There has been an outpouring of affection throughout Dinwiddie for the victim, who was widely praised at her funeral,” where they note hundreds of people attended, citing news coverage at the time.

“A general climate of bias toward the defendant can be adduced from this outpouring of sympathy for the victim and her family from the wide demographic within the community.”

Coleman’s attorneys added further, “A change of venue provides the only method of avoiding the obvious appearance and reality of unfairness resulting from holding this trial in Dinwiddie under circumstances … identified”

Commonwealth Attorney Baskervill argued against a venue change heading into last month’s trial, citing a number of cases in her argument while stating the “sheer volume of publicity or widespread knowledge of the crime(s) or the accused is insufficient by itself to justify a change of venue.”

She added, citing from another case, “Jurors need not be ignorant of the crime… a potential juror who has knowledge of the case, even if such person has formed an opinion about the case is entitled to sit on the jury if that opinion can be set aside” and “The mere existence of a preconceived notion as to the guilt or innocence of an accused is not sufficient to rebut the presumption of a prospective juror’s impartiality, if the juror can lay aside his impression or opinion and can render a verdict based upon the evidence.”

Baskervill would further argue in retort of the November defense motion that “an attempt to seat an impartial jury where the crime occurred should be made before taking the drastic action of moving the trial of the case to a different city or county.”

That motion was ultimately denied by Judge Paul Cella and the case proceeded to trial on Jan. 2 before a mistrial was declared days later after the jury confirmed they were hopelessly deadlocked during deliberations.

Days after the trial concluded, Coleman’s attorneys, anticipating the Commonwealth’s plan to retry their client for his alleged role in Adkins’ murder, filed a motion to seal trial exhibits from public view and, within their Jan. 16 filing, they continued to argue Coleman would be unable to get a fair trial in the county and pointed to an apparent “difficulty” in seating a jury in their client’s first trial.

“In light of the difficulty in picking a qualified jury the first time, and in light of heavy media attention during and immediately after trial, it remains Mr. Coleman’s position that he cannot get a fair trial in Dinwiddie County, especially if all of the trial exhibits are open to public scrutiny,” they said in their motion.

Their motion details the jury selection process during the early January trial, explaining “The court had previously directed that 200 jurors be summoned to court for the trial of this matter, 89 jurors were questioned before 25 potentially qualified jurors could be found. Of those 25, two were later released for reasons stated on the record at trial, causing the court to have to use the two individuals previously selected as alternates.”

They added, “The primary reason for striking so many jurors for cause was knowledge of the parties or witnesses, and knowledge of the case through media attention.”

According to the motion filed on January 16, the Commonwealth, represented by Baskervill, as of that date had “not communicated its position on the motion,” adding their client wishes the court to “immediately and temporarily seal the exhibits until such time as the Commonwealth chooses to weigh in on this motion and/or the motion can be heard.”

A check of court records early last week did not return filings from Baskervill or Dinwiddie prosecutors in response to the defense’s request to seal the first trial’s evidence exhibits and due to the ongoing gag order in the case, all parties involved in the case are unable to answer questions regarding any aspect of this case..

According to court records, both sides are expected to appear in court again on February 18 where a second trial date may be set. Additionally, a bond hearing is set for February 28 and a pre-trial motions hearing is scheduled for March 27.