Judge denies change of venue for murder-for-hire trial


JONESBORO — The judge in the case of a Jonesboro widow accused in a murder-for-hire scheme in her husband’s death denied a change of venue for her trial.

Craighead County Circuit Judge Victor L. Hill rejected Michelle Despain’s argument that extensive pretrial publicity and discussion of the case on social media case might taint the jury pool for her trial.

Despain is the last of four people charged in the August 2011 shooting death of businessman Marc Despain. The others, including her father, pleaded guilty. Her trial date has not been set.

Hill’s order, filed late Tuesday and released Wednesday, acknowledged witness testimony, affidavits and exhibits filed with Despain’s motion, including “a rather voluminous one” from an online chat room called “Topix.”

Most of those who offered opinions speculated that the woman was somehow culpable in her husband’s death, but the condemnation was not universal and some cast suspicion on others, the judge said.

“In short, the opinions expressed have been all over the map,” Hill said.

He said potential jurors who might have become tainted because of the chat room or some other media coverage could be ferreted out with careful questioning during jury selection, and that “if necessary, the court will take a more active role in the jury selection process than is its usual wont.”

Hill also said he did not detect bias in the considerable news media interest in the case.

“They have merely reported what there is to report from those who will speak with them about the matter,” he said. “Although this could lead to a situation in which defendant’s right to a fair trial might be compromised, the court is not to the point where it is prepared to say that such a crucial tipping point has been reached.”

Michelle Despain’s father, Carl D. Kelley, pleaded guilty to his role in his son-in-law’s death in December and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Terrance Barker, the shooter, pleaded guilty to a first-degree murder charge and agreed to cooperate with authorities in future proceedings in exchange for a 35-year prison term.

Johnny Hubbard pleaded to a reduced charge of hindering apprehension and received an 18-year sentence. Additionally, his probation on a previous drug conviction was revoked and he was sentenced to 40 years. The prison terms are to run consecutively for a total of 58 years.