Judge rules triple-slaying trial will be held in Ascension

The state district judge presiding over the trials of five men implicated in the home-invasion killings of a Gonzales-area couple and their adult son ordered on Wednesday that jury selection for the first of the trials trial take place in Lafayette Parish.

But Judge Alvin Turner Jr. of 23rd Judicial District Court ruled the first-degree murder trial of the first of the five defendants to go on trial — Michael Aikens, 36, 16460 La. 930, Prairieville — will remain in Ascension Parish.

Aikens’ defense attorneys argued that pretrial publicity about the slayings would prevent Aikens from being judged by fair and impartial jurors in Ascension.

“It’s our opinion that a change of venue in this case is appropriate,” Elton Richey, Aikens’ defense attorney, told Turner before the judge issued his ruling at the Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales.

Prosecutors have said they plan to seek the death penalty for Aikens. He and the four other defendants each face trial on three first-degree murder counts. Three of the four remaining defendants also face the death penalty.

Richey is a lawyer with the Capital Assistance Project of Louisiana Inc. in Shreveport.

Assistant District Attorney Robin O’Bannon did not object to picking the jury in Lafayette, saying her office wanted to avoid placing a further burden on the victims’ family, but said the District Attorney’s Office would oppose moving the trial.

Jury selection starts Sept. 30, O’Bannon said in a later interview.

In a May 2 motion seeking the venue change, Richey cited research from the first half of the 1990s, raising concerns about racial bias among jurors against black defendants in death penalty cases, a worry only exacerbated by the pretrial publicity in strongly majority white Ascension.

Turner made clear in questioning Richey on Wednesday that Richey was making an argument about jury selection, not the trial itself. Before ruling, the judge told him a parish would be selected with roughly the same racial makeup as Ascension’s.

Sheriff’s investigators have said the slayings stemmed from a plot to steal gold and other valuable coins from a safe in Robert Irwin Marchand’s house near Gonzales.

Aikens had worked for Marchand more than a decade earlier and knew about his employer’s coin collection, authorities have said.

Marchand, 74; his wife, Shirley Marchand, 72; and his stepson, Douglas Dooley, 50, of Cross Plains, Tenn., were found with throats slashed and showing signs of being beaten when deputies found them in the family’s Babin Road home on Feb. 18, 2012.

Robert Marchand and Dooley were dead. Shirley Marchand died March 2, 2012.

Turner also severed the four other defendants’ trials from Aikens’ trial Wednesday. O’Bannon did not object.

Defense attorneys told Turner that either their clients or Aikens had made “antagonistic statements” toward the other.

O’Bannon said the defendants were making unspecified accusations against each other.

The defense attorneys declined comment. Portions of the court record, including disclosed sheriff’s reports, have been sealed.