ALLEN COUNTY — Eleven of the 16 jurors and alternates needed for a six-year-old Clark County murder case have been seated, court staff confirmed before they broke for the day around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Jury selection started Tuesday morning in Fort Wayne in Allen County in the trial of Joseph Oberhansley, now 39, who was charged in 2014 with murder, rape and burglary in connection with the death of his ex-girlfriend, 46-year-old Tammy Jo Blanton.
Oberhansley was arrested Sept. 11, 2014 when police conducted a welfare check at Blanton’s home on Locust Street in Jeffersonville after she failed to report to work.
Police say Oberhansley answered the door and had what they later found to be a knife in his pocket with blood on it. Blanton’s body was found mutilated in the bathtub.
Attorneys seek to seat 12 jurors and four alternates, selecting from a jury pool in Allen County to avoid jurors being made aware of the case through pretrial publicity. They’re expected to travel to Southern Indiana this week to start opening statements and witness testimony in Clark County.
Court documents filed late last week show that 640 possible jurors were summoned by the Allen County Superior Court administrator; they were expected to appear in groups of 40 in two-hour intervals. For each group, there were 10 minutes set aside for a statement by Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael, followed by 20 minutes of questioning by the defense and 20 minutes by the state.
Jurors, attorneys, court staff and Oberhansley are required to wear a mask while in the courtroom and stay socially distanced to safeguard against spread of COVID-19.
Since the start of the case, the defendant has been sent twice to Logansport State Hospital for competency restoration. He was most recently deemed competent to stand trial in mid-August. He had originally appeared for trial in August 2019, but that was cut short and a mistrial called after a witness misspoke on the stand on the first day of testimony.
In that trial, the jury pool had come from Hamilton County. Attorneys had later planned to select from St. Joseph County for the second trial but had opted for Allen due to a conflict.
In a ruling late last week, Judge Carmichael ruled against a request by defense attorneys to bring up mental health information in the case, stating that it would go against a stipulation filed in 2019 after Oberhansley requested to withdraw the use of an insanity defense.
In May 2019, and against the recommendation of his attorneys, the defendant made a motion to withdraw that defense. He contended that he did not suffer from mental illness and said that using that defense would admit guilt. Judge Carmichael approved the motion, stating that it was his right to make such a decision in his case.
Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull followed by amending his charges to be a life-without-parole case. Oberhansley had previously faced the death penalty.
Defense attorneys recently argued that they should be allowed to address mental illness with lay witnesses to give context to their client’s actions or words.
In a separate motion filed Friday, the defense objected to jury selection and a jury trial taking place at all during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was overruled by the judge. In that motion, attorneys stated that to conduct a jury trial during the pandemic would create safety risks to jurors, attorneys, staff, the defendant and other participants and thus violate jurors’ rights.
They also stated in the document that it would also violate Oberhansley’s rights by not having a representative jury pool if populations more at risk for infection from the virus were to either seek a hardship deference or decline to appear when summoned.
“The defense submits proceeding to jury selection will deprive Mr. Oberhansley of a [jury pool] representing a fair cross section of the community,” according to the motion. It also states that having the barrier of face masks would prevent attorneys from fully getting the information from each needed to seat a jury.
Jury selection was expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Allen County.