Courtroom Notebook: How the Oberhansley case ended in a mistrial

Judge declares mistrial after jurors hear statements they weren't supposed to from witness in Joseph Oberhansley trial
Published: Aug. 22, 2019 at 7:36 PM EDT
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JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (WAVE) - On the first day of jury selection in the Joseph Oberhansley murder trial, Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said, "It's unusual, but it's an unusual sort of case."

Those words would prove true again days later when the first trial for Oberhansley, accused in the death of Tammy Jo Blanton, ended in a mistrial.

But that’s not the end for Oberhansley. He will once again be tried by a jury, selected out of Hamilton County in this Clark County case, but the court proceedings will have to begin anew in Hamilton County, all because of a quick few words uttered by the state’s third witness, Donna Victoria.

Day four of the Oberhansley murder trial began as expected Thursday. Oberhansley was brought into Judge Vicki Carmichael’s courtroom in Jeffersonville, again in a suit jacket and button-up shirt, not his typical jail garb. And like the day before, Oberhansley repeated his claim coming in and out of the courtroom that it wasn’t him who’d killed Blanton.

“The prosecution and the state knows they have the wrong man. I’m 100 percent innocent of all these false charges against me,” Oberhansley said, adding that it was two male intruders that had murdered Tammy.

Once court began, jurors were brought in for the first full day of testimony, or so they thought.

Two witnesses were brought in, both friends of Tammy’s and co-workers with her at Zirmed in Louisville, where they all worked. First, Sabrina Hall took the stand, then Tessa Shepherd. Both women painted a picture of fear to the jury, fear of a well-liked woman wanting to be happy at first finding happiness with Oberhansley, then something darker.

“Things were going bad with the relationship with JJ,” Hall said.

It should be noted that many witnesses use the nickname JJ when speaking about Oberhansley.

Shepherd told jurors that in the days before the murder, “Tammy was afraid.” She said Blanton had confided in her that she’d been sexually abused by Oberhansley during the weekend prior to her death, and she was fearful.

Shepherd explained during her testimony that Blanton “was fearful that Mr. Oberhansley may show up” at their work. And he did, she said, finding a way into their secured building in Louisville to talk with her. “I knew she was very uncomfortable.”

When Tammy didn’t show up for work on Sept. 11, 2014, Shepherd and Hall said they called Tammy’s cellphone and Oberhansley answered, using the names Jason, John and Joe and telling them Tammy wasn’t there. They called police for a welfare check, they told jurors.

But it was testimony from the third witness, Donna Victoria, that shook up the courtroom Thursday.

It started out simple, as Victoria explained to jurors that she and Tammy became fast friends in town, often finding time to cook out together or hang out on the weekends. And when Tammy met JJ, Victoria testified that “she was excited about this new future with him and I was excited for her,” adding that “everyone wants their friends to be happy.”

But the Monday before her death, Victoria explained, Blanton had called her, asking to talk with a friend. When Blanton got to her home, Victoria said she confided in her that on the previous Friday, Oberhansley had grabbed her and “held her hostage all weekend, and that he raped her.”

Victoria testified that Blanton did not want to call police because she didn’t want Oberhansley to have to go back to prison. Victoria also mentioned that they discussed what happened that weekend may be an issue because of Oberhansley’s drug use.

Court proceedings came to a quick halt. The jury was taken out. Attorneys came forth to the judge and immediately, it was made clear something had gone wrong.

The defense argued the jury was not supposed to hear about Oberhansley’s criminal history and drug use, because it could impact their findings.

A brief recess was called and when they came back in the afternoon, both the defense and prosecution team argued for a mistrial to Judge Carmichael. They both said what Victoria had told the jurors would impact Oberhansley’s ability to get a fair and impartial trial.

Carmichael agreed, ruling it a mistrial.

But that’s not the end of Oberhansley’s case.

Carmichael ruled that jury selection and the trial would begin again and soon, likely within a few days or a few weeks. Jury selection will have to take place in Hamilton County again to be sequestered in Clark County.

A date of Sept. 3 for that new trial to begin was mentioned by Judge Carmichael, but it’s likely that will change once a schedule has been worked out with the Hamilton County Courthouse. But once it’s scheduled, and a new jury is seated, many in this case are ready to begin again, and this time, hopefully reach a verdict.

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