By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers
A third attorney has taken over as defense counsel in the death penalty case of a Clovis dentist accused of murdering a 30-year-old mother of two and leaving her body in a rural Curry County ditch.
Also, District Attorney Matt Chandler told the court at a hearing Thursday morning he expects the defense to ask for a change of venue, but did not elaborate.
Attorney Mark Earnest of Albuquerque introduced himself as counsel in the homicide case of James Smith during a status hearing in the 9th Judicial District Court.
The hearing, instead of confirming the case was on track as intended, became a discussion of deadlines and scheduling as the court worked to accommodate the new attorney.
Earnest expressed unfamiliarity with the case.
Telling the court he had been with the Capital Crimes Unit for only a couple of weeks, Earnest said he is still working his way through Smith’s files.
The case was originally scheduled for trial in January. Attorneys agreed to reschedule for June 1, 2007. Earnest made the judge aware he may ask for further extensions as his case is developed.
Chandler said prosecutors did not want to render defense counsel ineffective by holding to previously set dates.
“We will have to rewind and set new deadlines and set a new trial date,” Chandler told Judge Joe Parker.
Erring on the side of caution is important to the integrity of the case, Chandler said. “We only want to try this case one time,” he said.
Telling the court, “I am most assured the defense is going to file a motion for change of venue,” Chandler cited Roosevelt and Chaves counties as possible locations asking their calendar be considered by the court. Earnest did not confirm Chandler’s assumption.
The trial is expected to take six weeks, both attorneys agreed.
Smith is accused of killing Laura McNaughton in December.
McNaughton’s body was discovered by hunters Dec. 10 in a rural Curry County ditch.
Smith was arrested Dec. 20.
Clovis attorney Stephen Doerr withdrew from the case in April.
Mark Horton, public defender from the Capital Crimes Unit, took over the defense from Doerr in April. His withdrawal was not explained in Thursday’s hearing.