Alleged St. John gunmen to be tried separately

Lawyer: Joekel and Smith likely to testify against each other

Two anti-government extremists accused of gunning down a pair of St. John the Baptist Parish deputies last year will be tried separately, a state judge ruled Friday.

Brian Smith and Kyle Joekel are charged with capital murder and face the possibility of execution if convicted of killing Deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche during a shoot-out at a LaPlace mobile home park in August 2012. One other deputy was shot at the same site, and an off-duty Sheriff’s Office employee was shot earlier — allegedly by the same people — in a parking lot for the nearby Valero refinery.

The two defendants said nothing during an hourlong hearing Friday in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard.

In a motion filed last month, Richard Bourke, an attorney for Smith, requested that his client and Joekel be tried separately. Prosecutors did not oppose the request.

Bourke offered a litany of reasons, including that Smith and Joekel are antagonistic, that Smith may call Joekel to testify in his defense and that some evidence is admissible against one defendant but not the other.

“As only Brian Smith and Mr. Joekel are charged with these attempted murders, the jury will be in the position of determining which man was the shooter with regard to each of the decedents — facts which will be the subject of heated dispute,” Bourke wrote in the motion. “This naturally puts Brian Smith and Mr. Joekel against one another, especially considering the nature of the state’s evidence.”

Bourke said that includes forensic evidence from both men that was allegedly found on the gun used, witnesses who caught only a quick glimpse of the shooter in the pre-dawn light and witnesses who disagreed about who they saw fire the gun.

“Neither do the witnesses agree on the length of the shooting, the number of rounds fired, or the timing or length of any breaks in the shooting, if any, and whether such break was long enough for a second person to pick up the murder weapon and fire it,” Bourke wrote. Both Smith and Joekel “will inevitably end up joining the state as one another’s accusers,” he predicted.

Joekel may be an ideal witness for Smith’s defense, Bourke wrote, since he is “not only an eyewitness to the shooting, but also to the events leading up to it, including the behavior of other witnesses immediately preceding it.”

In a separate motion, Bourke said lack of money has hampered his effort to hire defense experts. The Louisiana Public Defender Board has stalled funding requests for hiring experts since June, he said, and the parish public defender’s office told him it has no funds to pay for experts.

Bourke had asked to halt the prosecution in the case until the money is secured, but on Friday, he told Judge Sterling Snowdy, who is handling the case, that he believed the funding issue would be resolved in the coming weeks.

In response to Bourke’s motion, Justin Lacour, a St. John Parish assistant district attorney, suggested that additional money has been secured and the request for expert witnesses would soon be approved. “Accordingly, there is no reason to halt the prosecution in this matter,” Lacour wrote in the court filing.

Brian Smith’s father, Terry Smith, who is charged with being a principal to attempted first-degree murder, also attended Friday’s hearing. Terry Smith spoke more frequently than the other defendants throughout the proceeding. One reason: Early in the proceeding, Snowdy granted a motion for the elder Smith to serve as his own attorney.

Terry Smith, who has no formal legal training, told Snowdy that his public defender, Brian Woods, “is such an adversary to my situation.” Snowdy allowed Terry Smith to represent himself, but said Woods would remain with him in the courtroom as standby counsel.

“He will have no responsibility in the trial of your case, as you will not permit that,” Snowdy remarked.

Terry Smith scoffed at the idea of getting help from Woods and asked for an alternate standby counsel to be appointed. “I think that would be a grave injustice against me and bias by the court,” he said about the prospect of continuing alongside Woods.

As he was led out of the courtroom, Terry Smith turned to Brian Smith and said in a low voice, “I love you, son.”

The family accused in the killings has ties to the Sovereign Citizens, a loose-knit, anti-government extremist group described by the FBI as domestic terrorists.

Seven people were initially charged in the 2012 shootings. Three still await trial.

Brian Smith’s brother, Derrick, pleaded guilty as an accessory and agreed to a five-year sentence, plus a 12-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Two women, Terry Smith’s wife, Chanel Skains, and Brian Smith’s girlfriend, Britney Keith, pleaded guilty as accessories and agreed to testify against their former family.

Another woman, Teniecha Bright, was released from custody after authorities determined she had caught a ride home with the Smith clan and got caught in the fray.