Alleged Kingpin in Kicklighter Murder Wants Change of Venue for Trial

The alleged kingpin in the murder of a Tattnall County native says his case must be moved to another county in order for him to receive a fair trial.

That’s what attorneys for Nathan Weekes, Jimmy Berry and Gerald Word, said in court filings set to be heard by a judge later this month. Weekes, through his attorneys, has also asked the court to disqualify “all potential jurors who knew or were acquainted with the victims or their families.”

Weekes is charged, along with three others, in the January 2021 murder of 88-year-old Bobby Kicklighter. The murder is an alleged murder for hire plot intended for a corrections officer who lived next door. Weekes was an inmate at Smith State Prison at the time and prosecutors have announced their intention to seek the death penalty in the case.

Request for Change of Venue

A change of venue means the judge, prosecutors, and defense teams would travel to another judicial circuit for the purposes of selecting from another pool of potential jurors. Changes of venue must be to counties or circuits that are similarly situated in terms of population and demographic.

Citing the right to a trial by an impartial jury, Weekes’ attorneys said in filings that the court should grant a change of venue because:

  • the estimated population of adults between 18 and 65 is approximately 15,000 and
  • the probability is high that every adult in the Tattnall County community has at one point in time or the other read, seen, or heard evidence regarding this case
  • The official Tattnall County website reports that 1,400 people work in the prison, as the county’s main employer. “Because official GBI reports of the Kicklighter death have indicated a prison guard was the actual target of the killing, local attention has been drawn to this case outside of those who knew and love Mr. Kicklighter. Attention was heightened when the Warden of Smith State Prison Brian Adams was arrested as part of this investigation. The investigation has now spawned its own Podcast on called Prison Town.”
  • “This crime has been the subject of much rumor and speculation within the community…it seems that law enforcement agents have been responsible for the spread of some of these untruths and misleading information.”

“The trial court must consider whether pretrial publicity has created “A LIKELIHOOD OF PREJUDICE” so as to warrant a change of venue…The nature of the publicity is overwhelmingly negative and oriented toward the prosecution’s theory of the case. Tattnall County is served by two local weekly newspapers and two local radio stations as well as the daily Savannah Morning News. In addition, they are served by 4 televisions stations…Each of these outlets has not only covered this story extensively through the respective medium of print, radio, and television, but each of them has an extensive social media following…These outlets have been in attendance at all court hearings and are monitoring every aspect of the case.”

Request for Disqualification of All Potential Jurors who Knew or Were Acquainted with the Victims or Their Families

Weekes’ attorneys cited a Georgia Supreme Court ruling which held that jurors who were acquainted with the victim or the victim’s family are “presumed to be prejudiced” and are “unfit to serve on a capital jury, even if the juror claims to be impartial and able to decide the case based solely on the evidence and the court’s instructions.”

Prosecutors Oppose Weekes’ Requests 

Special Prosecutor Sheila Ross said in a motion filed on May 19 that the state is requesting the court reserve ruling on the change of venue request until the ‘voir dire’ process during jury selection. Ross’ motions cite another death penalty case, State v. Kelly Gissendaner – in which the defendant was executed in 2015 – because, when considering significant media coverage, “the decisive factor in determining whether a change of venue is required is ‘the effect of the publicity on the ability of prospective jurors to be objective.’

“Media coverage alone is not grounds for change of venue. And at the time of this filing, the parties do not know exactly when they will be attempting to select a jury in this case,” the motion reads. “Here, Defendant has cited to no inflammatory or inaccurate coverage – but rather he merely asserts subjectively that the coverage has been ‘negative and oriented towards the prosecution’s theory of the case.’ Exposure to pretrial publicity does not disqualify prospective jurors unless their opinions are so fixed and definite that they could not set them aside and render a decision based solely on the evidence presented in court.”

Ross cited a 1993 case in Tattnall County in which the Georgia Court of Appeals rejected a defendant’s argument on a change of venue simply because of the nature of the relationship between the county and the prisons. In that case, the defendant was charged with an attack on a corrections officer while he was an inmate. 

With regard to the disqualification of jurors who knew Kicklighter or know his family, the state argues that asking for a blanket excusal of potential jurors who knew or were acquainted with the victims or their families before asking them a single question is ‘not a legal reason to disqualify a juror.’

Ultimately, however, it’s up to a judge to decide. 

Other High Profile Cases 

It’s not uncommon for defendants in both high profile and death penalty cases to seek a change of venue, but moving a trial to another county of similar size and demographic is a high burden to overcome.

Other Cases

Ahmaud Arbery 

One of the most notably high profile cases in recent years is undoubtedly the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was gunned down in Glynn County. The handling of the case in the weeks that followed placed the case on national news networks for months and resulted in the assignment of a special prosecutor. The three men charged with his murder, however, all stood trial in Glynn County.

Ross Harris

The notorious Ross Harris case, in which Harris was tried for the murder of his young son whom he left in a hot vehicle in 2014 was moved from Cobb County to Glynn County in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. The request for change of venue was made after jury selection began.

Heidt Murders 

In Effingham County, Craig Heidt was charged with killing his father and brother and severely wounding his mother in 2008. Because of the family’s prominent status in the community as well as his affair with his sister-in-law, who was married to one of the deceased, the case garnered headlines across the country. The court ultimately denied the request for a change of venue.

Donnie Rowe & Ricky Dubose 

Rowe and Dubose were charged with the 2017 murders of two GDC corrections officers, whom they overtook during a prison transport. Sgts. Christopher Monica and Curtis Billue were killed with their own weapons. Dubose received the death penalty and Rowe received a life sentence for his role and in those cases, the state agreed to the request by the defense for a change of venue out of “an abundance of caution.” 

Ryan Duke

Duke was tried in 2021 on charges related to the murder of Tara Grinstead, a beauty queen whose death went unsolved for decades while it garnered headlines around the country. Defense attorneys sought a change of venue from Irwin County, but ultimately, the case remained in Irwin County.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast.'

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