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Man charged in Charleston police officer death asks to move trial out of Kanawha County

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The man charged with the murder of Charleston Police Patrolman Cassie Johnson has asked to move his trial out of Kanawha County.

Joshua Phillips, 38 of Charleston, appeared for a pre-trial hearing Wednesday, which was the date of the one-year anniversary of Johnson being shot on Garrison Avenue while responding to a parking complaint.

Phillips was indicted in April by a grand jury on charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy, prohibited persons from possession of a concealed firearm and violation of the Uniform Controlled Substance Act.

According to officials, Johnson was wounded by Phillips when the two exchanged gunfire while the officer was responding to the call on Dec. 1, 2020. She was taken off life support the next day at Charleston Area Medical Center and died the day after that.

Ronni Sheets, Phillips’ defense attorney told the virtual hearing that there had recently been a filing of a motion for a change of venue in the case. The motion stated, “There has been a great deal of media coverage and social media activity regarding this case. This has included a live television broadcast of Officer Johnson’s funeral and ongoing coverage and publicity regarding memorial events. There has not only been media activity memorializing Officer Johnson, but a considerable amount of content portraying the defendant in a negative light and presuming his guilt.”

Sheets said from the beginning of December of last year to May there were at least 175 news stories that included hostile comments towards Phillips.

“That averages a news story a day. Your honor, there are many expressions of hostile sentiment toward my client,” Sheets said to Judge Jennifer Bailey.

Sheets further stated that defense attorneys are working to hire an expert to conduct a change of venue study. She said the expert would compare media coverage from around the state and social media and telephone research around Kanawha County.

“Part of the work is not just to see if there is a lot of media coverage here, but how that media coverage would compare to a different area of similar size within the state to determine if the same amount of media coverage happened everywhere in the state, then there wouldn’t necessarily be any benefit to moving the case,” Sheets said.

First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Don Morris noted that he believes that most people do not follow local media coverage but only national outlets.

“I would point out that we have not tried to select a jury in this case yet. We don’t know how many people actually follow the local media. It’s been my experience that a lot of people do not even watch the local media, they get their news from FOX or CNN,” Morris said.

Bailey said she would keep the trial date of Jan. 10.

Another status hearing was scheduled for Dec. 17 at 2 p.m.

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