The trial for two former Hancock College athletes charged with murder and robbery will be moved to an old traffic courtroom in Lompoc to mitigate an impacted courthouse in Santa Maria.
Jury selection now is underway at the Santa Maria Superior Court for former basketball players Lavell Calvin White and Ali Mohammed, charged with the 2014 fatal shooting of Terence Richardson. The pair also face a special circumstances allegation that the killing occurred during a robbery, along with several charges for residential burglaries.
Once a jury is chosen and sworn in, the panel will appear at the Lompoc Superior Court to hear testimony, which is expected to take six weeks. Opening statements are estimated to begin in March.
Santa Barbara County Courts Executive Officer Darrel Parker said the plan was made to transfer the trial due to a number of pending cases that had stacked up.
Enabling one judge to focus on one trial should expedite the process as well as free up court space, he explained.
"We just never have enough attorneys, judges or court space but (we have) a lot of big cases that take weeks at a time," Parker explained. "If this one goes well, we could have larger trials sent down to Lompoc in the future."
With the trial transfer, Judge James Voysey will preside over the case in Lompoc from Monday through Thursday. Another judge will be brought in to deal with other matters Voysey normally would hear in his Santa Maria courtroom.
"We figured this would be a good way to expedite trials, get them through the pipeline and the notion is, if we had the judge concentrate on one trial, it would move the case swiftly," Parker said.
Parker noted it's not unusual to change venues for large or complex cases, noting the 2015 U-Haul trial, which had six defendants and six attorneys, was heard in Santa Maria Juvenile Court on Foster Road.
Officials picked Lompoc for the homicide case after looking at Santa Barbara Superior Court and, even, the old Solvang courthouse.
"Lompoc just seemed most practical to hold the Hancock trial," Parker said. "We thought Santa Barbara was just way too far to bus jurors and it's costly. Solvang doesn't have holding facilities and it's just too remote; we just don't have the resources set up to try felonies over there."
The Lompoc Superior Court originally opened as a municipal court and doesn't have the resources to try felony cases on a regular basis, Parker explained.
Currently, one courtroom (Department 1) operates with one judge who primarily handles felony arraignments and misdemeanor cases up to the preliminary hearing process.
Staff now are working to ready an old courtroom (Department 2) for the trial, which means bringing in data projectors, audio/camera equipment and furniture. There won't be any increased expenses, according to Parker.
In the past, Department 2 was used for traffic cases and, most recently, for family law mediation and child support cases.
"I have to set up a courtroom that's not set up to hold trials like this, and it is easier to stay in Santa Maria, but we hope the focused attention on this trial can move the backlog of cases faster," Parker added.
Four sheriff's deputies will be stationed in the courtroom during the trial, and some staff members will be sent to Lompoc.
"There are usually more deputies in Santa Maria, so it's a lot easier; once a courtroom is done with their cases for the day, that frees up a deputy who can be reassigned to another courtroom," Parker said. "We won't be reducing the amount of deputies in Santa Maria, though, which is good."