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Jurors exchanged expressions ranging from relief to puzzlement Wednesday as they filed out of the Shelby County Circuit Courtroom after being dismissed before their trial even began.
After the jurors left the room, Circuit Judge Charles Hickman announced that the jury trial for James Anthony Watkins had been cancelled because he had just learned that Watkins had fired his attorney, Dennis Burke of Louisville, the previous evening.
“Unfortunately, we have to continue this trial date; the defendant fired his attorney last night,” Hickman said.
Watkins, 41, was arrested in March in connection with the shooting of Wilber Castillo at Meadowridge Apartment complex in Simpsonville Aug. 5, 2012.
Watkins, who had eluded authorities for months after a shooting in Simpsonville last summer, was to have gone to trial last week on felony first-degree assault and wanton endangerment charges, but his trial was rescheduled for Wednesday.
Castillo, who had been shot twice in the lower body, was rushed to the University of Louisville, and the apartment complex was evacuated while police searched unsuccessfully for Watkins.
He was on the lam for seven months, eluding several police agencies and even federal marshals, until being arrested by Shelbyville Police Detective Jessie Paulley, who finally cornered him in an apartment on Main Street.
After the courtroom cleared on Wednesday, Shelby County Commonwealth Attorney Laura Donnell expressed disappointment at the turn of events.
“This is very frustrating to us because we had prepared for trial on a very serious charge,” she said. “This was a great deal of work for everybody involved, including all those jurors who had to come in. Everybody had to take time out of their busy schedules to accommodate this.”
Circuit Clerk Lowry Miller, who had spent the entire morning working with the jury pool, getting them organized and arranging accommodations for the large group, even rearranging seating and furniture in the hallway and lobby outside the courtroom until their numbers could be narrowed down to 12, was diplomatic about the situation.
“Well, I was surprised, to say the least; I expected it to go,” he said.
Although it’s common for a trial to be cancelled because the accused has entered into a plea agreement, Miller said he couldn’t recall an instance like Wednesday’s.
“We haven’t had a trial cancelled before because of something like this,” he said.
Burke did not return phone calls from The Sentinel-News.
Before adjourning, Hickman told those gathered in the courtroom that he intended to set a new hearing date of Sept. 23 for Watkins and that he expected him to have hired a new attorney by that time.
He also, through an interpreter, told Castillo, who had traveled from Texas to testify at the trial, that he would have to return to Kentucky next year when the trial resumes.
“Unfortunately, I can’t tell you when that date will be, but it will definitely be after the first of the year,” he said.
Hickman also said that he intended to hold Watkins accountable for the cost of the cancelled trial.
“I have also assessed the cost of the proceedings against him today,” he said.
Miller said that the pool consisted of 87 jurors who would have to be paid $12.50 each. It’s not known if Hickman intends to include the cost of Castillo’s travel arrangements in his assessment.