EASTON, Pa. | An expert witness hired to help defend the man accused in a fatal shooting more than a decade ago in Easton told a county judge last week that she could be ready for trial in late 2021.
But exasperated prosecutors told the Northampton County judge it was unacceptable to delay the case they’ve been prepared to try for 18 months for more than another year.
The judge agreed.
Northampton County Judge Michael Koury last week set a Nov. 2 trial date for Jacob Holmes Jr. In August 2017, authorities charged the 39-year-old in connection with the 2009 fatal shooting of Miguel Aponte at the Easton Cafe.
Holmes faces single counts of homicide, conspiracy, reckless endangerment and carrying a firearm without a license along with the death penalty.
In 2014, Franklin Barndt, the man investigators said was the “lookout,” pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit homicide and terroristic threats and was sentenced to up 42 years in prison.
During a lengthy pre-trial conference last week, the judge said Holmes waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to a bench trial in exchange for the prosecutors withdrawing the death penalty.
Holmes has since changed his mind, and the trial was scheduled for May before defense attorneys Matthew Goodrich and Brian Monahan asked for a new trial date.
The cause for the latest delay centers on the defense’s mitigation specialist. Mitigation specialists are used in death penalty cases to advocate for a client’s life and are asked to help the court understand a defendant’s background and mental health or developmental disorders.
Goodrich told the judge during a video conference that the defense’s previous expert was unable to finish her work due to unforeseen circumstances and that they’ve since hired a new mitigation specialist. She has begun her review of the case but needs more time to finish her work, he said.
In response to questions from the judge, Juandalynn Taylor offered a lengthy explanation about how she reviews a defendant’s history and prepares a report for trial. The already lengthy process has been further delayed, in part, by the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
Taylor said she has reviewed the work of the previous specialist. She testified that she needs access to Holmes’ school records and needs to arrange interviews based on a review of those records. With schools closed because of the pandemic, Taylor told the judge she hasn’t gotten access to all the records she needs.
And traditionally once summer arrives, it’s difficult to arrange interviews because teachers aren’t necessarily required to be in the buildings, she said. Taylor declined to go into further detail on the record about what other information or documents she needs to prepare.
When pressed by the judge as to when she could be ready for trial, Taylor said she would “ballpark it” at October 2021. She noted that she is preparing for other similar cases.
Holmes, who was watching the pre-trial conference from the prison, wasn’t pleased with Taylor’s timing.
“No way. I’m not staying here that long,” said Holmes, nephew of former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. “It’s crazy.”
Monahan told the judge he believes he and Goodrich could be ready for trial in November. When asked about his expert witness, Monahan said he didn’t think there was “anything extraordinary about this case” to prevent a November trial date. Taylor responded that if the trial is set for November she would prepare a report for November.
Northampton County District Attorney Terrence Houck said he could accept a Nov. 2 trial date, if the court was comfortable with it. Houck was the first deputy district attorney when he began prosecuting the case and has since been elected D.A.
But if the defense asks for any more continuances, the district attorney’s office will “object, object, object,” Houck said.
“I don’t want the goalposts constantly moved, your honor,” he said.
Laying the blame for the extensive delays at the feet of the defense, the judge formally set the trial date for Nov. 2.