Bess trial delayed so psychologist can testify

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Jewell Moses Bess

The murder trial for Jewell Moses Bess will be continued – likely until February 2015 – after a Circuit Court judge granted the defense’s request for a psychologist to testify whether Bess’s former wife was suicidal before she died in 1986.

Judge David Bragg made the decision in an order filed Wednesday based on the prosecution’s plan to present evidence showing that Deborah Sherfield Bess, 38, wasn’t showing suicidal tendencies before she died of a gunshot wound Aug. 19 some 28 years ago. Bragg granted funds to hire psychologist B. Charles Ihrig to testify.

“The Court is hesitant to grant the defendant’s motion if the expert was going to merely testify about the nature of people who commit suicide. However, if the state intends to elicit testimony, as they have indicated they will, that based on the victim’s activities that she would not commit suicide, then the defendant would have a right to present evidence to refute the state’s claims,” the judge wrote.

The trial was set for this week, but Assistant District Attorney Paul Newman asked for a February trial date in court Friday.

The district attorney’s office also received court permission to obtain a video deposition from a witness who is in bad health in a Florida prison and not expected to live until the trial date.

The defense will have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness, and the judge will be able to view the proceeding, possibly through Skype, according to District Attorney Bill Whitesell.

Bess, who has the right to confront the witness, will either be allowed to travel to Florida for the deposition or to watch it via real-time video, according to Whitesell.

“He might have to go,” Whitesell said.

Bess, 65, was indicted in March 2012 on a first-degree murder charge in the shooting death of his former wife at her Richland Road home. Bess has been serving time in state prison after pleading guilty to four counts of child rape in 1998 and has not been allowed out on bond in the murder case.

Investigators ruled his wife’s death a suicide in 1986, but new details brought forward in May 2011 led to the murder charge against Bess of his second wife.

“We found witnesses who had new information,” said Detective Sgt. Dan Goodwin, a member of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit, during a press conference two years ago.

Detective Lt. Bill Sharp noted then that the unit’s investigations “were able to establish the last known actions of Deborah Sherfield Bess.” The unit also interviewed Bess several times in the state penitentiary, in addition to reviewing the case file, crime scene photos, witness statements and reports and discussing the case with the district attorney’s office.

During a recent hearing before Bragg, defense attorney Chuck Ward made several requests, including asking the prosecution to search for photographs connected with the case and submit a gunshot residue test on Bess from the time of the incident.

“A gunshot residue test could show my client is not guilty, that he did not shoot a gun,” Ward said.

• Judge Bragg ordered the state to provide all photographs and film taken from the scene and to continue to make an effort to find three missing rolls of film taken by Murfreesboro Police Department and a gunshot residue test and deliver it to the defense.

The late Rick Deal, the sheriff’s office detective who originally investigated the incident, did take a gunshot residue test on Mrs. Bess, according to court statements. But Assistant District Attorney Paul Newman said he didn’t know if one existed for the defendant.

• The judge ruled that the defense attorney and witnesses not mention before jurors anything bad about the victim’s character or any prior acts.

• Bragg denied the defense’s request that the state provide criminal background checks and psychiatric/psychological information on all of its witnesses. Ward said 85 percent of the state’s witnesses have criminal histories.
Bragg noted in his order that the criminal background of witnesses is public record, and that the court would pay for the costs of gathering criminal histories.

• The judge granted the defense’s request that the state must disclose any agreements with state witnesses.

• Bragg also said he reviewed all case information and determined a hearing outside the jury’s presence is needed before state witnesses can testify about Bess’s reputation.

During the hearing, Newman said several witnesses will be asked why it took them so many years to come forward with information. He noted that many of them feared “reprisal” from Bess. Newman said those situations could be handled through hearings outside the jury’s presence.

• Bragg will allow Bess to wear clothing other than his jail-house uniform.

• The judge expressed misgivings but also will let one of the defense attorneys bring in a pistol similar to the one used in Mrs. Bess’s death, if the prosecution agrees the weapons are identical. But he noted that it could be used only to show the jury what the gun looked like and that it must be locked.

Newman said the gun that took Mrs. Bess’s life was returned to the defendant years ago.

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