Phelps murder trial continued

ST. CLAIRSVILLE Brandon Michael Phelps, 22, 1281 Birch St., Bellaire, appeared Monday before Common Pleas Court Judge Frank Fregiato for rulings on several motions from prosecution and defense. A continuance was ordered and a new trial date set for March 31 when the jury selection will start. Jury members will fill out the questionnaires March 27-28.

Phelps and Devin Wayne Fuller, 20, 3567 Franklin St., Bellaire, are charged with four counts of aggravated murder committed in the course of rape, aggravated burglary, burglary and trespassing. Each count carries a death penalty specification. Both also face two additional counts of trespassing.

Phelps is also accused of possession of a deadly weapon while under detention, a felony of the first degree.

The crimes are alleged to have taken place June 29-30, 2012. The victim, Lydia Ashworth, 92, was found dead in her Bellaire home.

Prosecutor Dan Fry and Paul Scarsella from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office represented the state. Public Defender Frank Pierce and visiting attorney Jake Blakeslee represented Phelps.

Fregiato addressed three motions from the defense and one from the state. Defense motioned to restrict from evidence other criminal activity including illicit drug use, a thwarted suicide attempt and alleged improper behavior while at the county jail. Defense has also requested the suppression of statements in response to investigators’ questions. Defense also motioned to compel discovery.

Scarsella informed Fregiato that the state did not intend to use the statements reportedly given during questioning. Defense agreed that the motion to suppress is moot and the motion hearing was postponed for further discussion.

The state made a motion for continuance based on the new motions. Fry asked Fregiato to consider that he was had been recently appointed to the position and requires time to better acclimate himself to the case. In addition, transcripts are being prepared which may prompt additional motions.

“Just as the defendant is entitled to a fair trial, I would suggest that the State of Ohio is entitled to a fair trial too,” said Fry. “This is a voluminous case.”

Pierce noted that process of complicated by the fact that each of the witnesses in the case has a criminal history. He added that he believes that arrangements and deals may have been made with the witnesses that have not been disclosed.

“It is inconceivable that there were not substantial quid pro-quo deals made to procure this testimony, and we have an absolute right to know about that before trial,” Pierce said, adding that witnesses expressed a desire to give any desired information to investigators.

Fry said there were no agreements made and information will be supplied to substantiate this. Prosecution added that further inquiries will be made if the defense specifies which witnesses. Defense also has access to its own investigator.

Blakeslee also expressed doubt concerning the credibility of one witness.

Fregiato ordered the state to comply with the witness list within 48 hours. The state will comply with any more narrow and specific requests regarding witnesses.

Defense opposed a continuance.

“My client’s been sitting in jail for a year and a half. He would like to get this resolved and get it behind him,” Pierce said. “He has great confidence not only in his own innocence but that he will be found innocent.”

Fregiato ruled that it was necessary and reasonable to grant the state’s motion for a continuance.

The Dec. 20 exception hearing will take place, allowing potential jurors to seek exception on varied grounds. Full jury trial was set for Jan. 2, with Jan. 2-3 set aside for potential jurors to complete forms in court. Jury selection would start the following Monday.

Excessive continuances would mean another request for jurors. The jury must be seated by the last day of April or another jury pool would have to be called.

DeFrank can be reached at