October 13, 2009 10:07:00 AM
The decision by a sitting town mayor, a former state representative and two Lowndes County legislators to join a petition for a change of venue in a local capital murder case is a cautionary tale about the intersection of justice and politics. It is also a flagrant example of bad judgment by four men who should know better.
Brian Holliman stands accused of murdering his wife, Laura, at their Caledonia home on Oct. 25, 2008. Initially reported as a suicide, a Lowndes County Sheriff''s Office investigator said Holliman later confessed to the crime.
Holliman has been free on $200,000 bond since November, and his trial has been postponed several times.
There have been twists and turns in the case. Holliman was initially held on $1 million bond, but was released by the Sheriff''s Department after his father, Doug Holliman, put the family''s land holdings up for collateral. Then, Holliman was rearrested after outcry from family and friends of the victim, who accused the Sheriff''s Department of giving him preferential treatment. His bond was later lowered, and he was again released on bond.
Questions also swirled around the initial investigation into the crime. According to authorities, the case was originally accepted by the Sheriff''s Department as a suicide until Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant, who had been out of town, returned to examine the scene with a state pathologist.
Into this drama wade Caledonia Mayor George Gerhart; District 17 Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus; Columbus Municipal School trustee and former state Rep. Bruce Hanson and District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, who also serves as Caledonia town attorney.
Changes of venue are frequently granted in capital murder trials -- and from the defense''s standpoint, the more ammo a defense attorney has to throw at the judge, the better. Steve Farese, Holliman''s attorney, is doing his job, and doing it well.
Is a change of venue warranted? That''s not for us to decide here, or opine upon -- nor is the defendant''s guilt or innocence.
But we believe our elected officials'' decision to add their name to the case was a poor one. They are in effect using their influence -- influence granted to them by the voters -- to influence the justice system. Yes, they may have personal connections to the Hollimans, who are well known in the Caledonia area. They may have no opinion of guilt or innocence either; merely an opinion on whether this defendant can receive a fair trial.
Yet however noble their intentions, they''ve sparked another trial -- one of public opinion.
And some may draw the conclusion -- and some have, judging by comments on our Web site -- that Gerhart, Brown, Hanson and Smith are using political muscle to influence a murder case involving a prominent family, that the "good ol'' boy" system is again at work in this case.
The perception is they stand on the opposite side of "law and order" -- 16th District Attorney Forrest Allgood opposes a change of venue, which he believes will result in yet another continuation. He said he will file his own affidavit, with citizens testifying to the contrary of the original motion''s claims.
While this perception may not be reality, it is a one that our leaders should know better not to feed.