The assignment of a new judge in a Missouri trooper’s involuntary manslaughter case has raised questions about fairness and small-town politics around the Lake of the Ozarks.
According to court records, Circuit Judge Kenneth Hayden on Monday received the case of Trooper Anthony Piercy, who is charged in the death of Brandon Ellingson. Ellingson, a college student from Iowa, drowned in the lake while handcuffed and in Piercy’s custody in May 2014.
Hayden and Piercy both live in the Versailles community in Morgan County. Hayden is well known around the town of 2,500, having been in private legal practice before becoming a judge. So is Piercy, a 20-year Highway Patrol veteran who has performed in community plays and was on the Versailles school board until after his criminal charges were filed.
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Both Hayden and Piercy are members of the Versailles Lions Club, said Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father. He said he was concerned about the case being handled in Morgan County because of the close relationships in a small area.
Having Hayden as the judge at Piercy’s trial would be a “joke,” Ellingson said.
“It looks like an advantage to” Piercy, he said. “It just seems unfair that the victim, who is Brandon, has no friends down there, he’s not from down there.”
Ellingson said he has spoken to special prosecutor William Camm Seay about the appearance of a conflict.
When contacted by The Star, Seay said he could not comment. But late Thursday, an electronic docket in Piercy’s case showed that Seay had filed a motion for a change of judge. The electronic filing did not state the basis for the motion.
Before Monday, the case was assigned to the court of Stan Moore, the other judge in the 26th Circuit. Moore is a resident of Lebanon, in Laclede County.
Court records say that change was made because of a scheduling error.
“The case was set before Judge Stan Moore when it should have been set before Judge Kenneth M. Hayden,” the records say. “Therefore the Court date will remain the same but the case will be heard by Judge Kenneth M. Hayden.”
Hayden did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.
News of the switch swirled around Versailles and the lake area and flooded social media pages dedicated to Brandon Ellingson’s life and his drowning on May 31, 2014. Piercy pulled over Ellingson that day on suspicion of boating while intoxicated and cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back before putting a life vest on him. The vest, with armholes, could not be properly secured over someone already wearing handcuffs.
Piercy was charged with the felony count in December. His trial is scheduled for late September.
One Morgan County resident, Kathie Blomberg, said the assignment of Hayden is just one more thing that appears to tilt the scales in Piercy’s favor.
“We have a hometown boy with a hometown trial with a hometown jury and a hometown judge,” said Blomberg, who lives south of Versailles. “And it’s not going to be good. ... I don’t see how anybody can look at it and possibly say it can be fair.”