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Judge hears motions

Appearing in person at the St. Francois County Courthouse on Wednesday, the rural Bonne Terre man charged with the 2012 murder of Sam “Tick” Francis heard Judge Sandra Martinez consider several motions entered by his defense counsel.

Melvin Scherrer’s two-week jury trial is currently scheduled to begin on May 14.

Among the more than 20 motions presented by the defense of Scherrer, Judge Martinez overruled more than half.

First, Judge Martinez sustained a motion for the state to produce arrest records of witnesses to the defense in the next 30 days. A motion was also sustained giving both the state and defense 30 days to endorse witnesses for the penalty phase of the trial.

The defense also filed a motion for the court to order Scherrer to receive medical treatment for an illness the defense said Scherrer suffers from, called hemochromatosis, which results in iron buildup in the bloodstream.

Scherrer’s attorney, Cynthia Dryden said progress had been made that might make the court’s order unnecessary. Judge Martinez deferred ruling on the motion, saying the defense could return within 30 days if the order was needed.

Next, Dryden described the reasoning for a motion filed to suppress evidence obtained during a January 2013 search of Scherrer’s home. Dryden said the search warrant that authorized the search was obtained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol in connection with Francis’ disappearance.

Dryden said that in addition to the patrol conducting the search, federal agents with the FBI, ATF, DEA and possibly other agencies also took part in the search, likely in connection to a separate drug investigation.

Scherrer was sentenced to 30 years in prison on federal meth conspiracy charges in April of 2015 as a result of that investigation.

Dryden said the returned search warrant had not been correctly filed with the circuit court clerk after the search was executed, apparently by mistake. The return warrant was apparently located in the clerk’s office, having been marked that it had been received late in the evening on Jan. 29, 2013.

Judge Martinez said the defense was presenting two concerning issues, being whether the return warrant was filed at all and whether the conducted search exceeded the scope of the warrant. She said she perceived an additional third issue, being whether the federal agents had confiscated any evidence during the search that might aid either the defense or the prosecution.

Dryden pointed to a subsequent April 2013 search which apparently produced “Gorilla Tape” taken from Scherrer’s home that reportedly did not match the tape used to bind Francis. She said it is important to know if further exculpatory evidence, or evidence pointing to Scherrer’s innocence, exists.

Dryden said she had attempted to obtain information about confiscated evidence from the federal agencies but had no luck. Martinez ordered St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Jerrod Mahurin to attempt to obtain information from the federal authorities about materials confiscated in the search. Mahurin asked the judge for 30 days to make the inquiries, which the judge granted.

Next, Judge Martinez heard a motion to order the state to supply the defense with the arrest records of jurors before the trial.

“The state is not entitled to more information about the jury than the defense,” Dryden argued.

Mahurin said that according to state law, he can not provide the defense with full, printed information from the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System (MULES).

The judge said both the defense and prosecution had valid points. She sustained the motion and asked Mahurin to look into ways to efficiently and legally produce a form of the information for the defense.

Dryden next described a motion to submit a questionnaire for use in easily eliminating invalid jurors during initial jury selection. She said her firm had used the questionnaire in other capital cases, avoiding keeping potential jurors at the courthouse for hours during selection.

Judge Martinez and Dryden discussed specifics, with Judge Martinez saying she would like to get the questionnaire in the hands of potential jurors a month or month and a half before the trial to ensure time remains to bring in additional jurors if necessary.

Mahurin said he was fine with the questionnaire and the judge sustained the motion.

Dryden next introduced a motion for the state to provide the defense with the jury instructions at least a week before the trial so the defense could object to and suggest alternate instructions if necessary.

Mahurin again offered no objection and the judge sustained the motion.

Next, Dryden introduced a motion to find a state statute unconstitutional regarding claiming mistrial based on the need to strike jurors. Martinez said the law is very clear on the matter and overruled the motion.

Martinez sustained a motion for the state to disclose “non-statutory aggravating evidence” to the defense.

Dryden next explained a motion to exclude character evidence of the victim during the penalty phase of the trial. She said that at that point in the trial, the testimony and evidence given should be centered on Scherrer and not the victim.

Dryden said the defense had compiled negative character evidence about the victim in case the prosecution insisted on entering positive character evidence of the victim, though she asked the prosecution not to do so.

Mahurin said while some basic victim impact evidence is allowed, he does not intend to rely on such positive character evidence of the victim as to necessitate negative victim character evidence from the defense.

The defense next objected to the use of victim impact evidence, believing that the state should disclose such evidence it intends to use and to carefully write jury instructions in relation to hearing such evidence.

Mahurin said based on Missouri statutes, he is not required to disclose victim impact evidence. Judge Martinez overruled the objection based on the statute.

Dryden next argued that criteria for enhancing a sentence from life in prison to the death penalty, as is being sought in Scherrer’s case, must be based on proof beyond reasonable doubt. She said the allowance of “unadjudicated bad acts,” which will not be the focus of proof-based testimony, should not be allowed.

Mahurin argued that the court is bound to follow state statutes and that any testimony related to the crime could be brought before the court.

Dryden also argued that the burden is unfairly placed on the defense to prove that mitigating circumstances, or circumstances that would cause a jury to recommend a lesser penalty, outweighed the aggravating circumstances, or circumstances which would cause the jury to recommend a higher penalty.

Mahurin again said the court must follow state statutes which do not align with the defense’s interpretation. Judge Martinez overruled the objection.

Next, Dryden argued that all factors used in determining penalty should be raised to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or else the defense would again hold the burden of proof. Judge Martinez overruled the objection.

Dryden then objected to the first phase instructions to jurors, saying only the first phase requires a unanimous decision, while all following phases should as well. Mahurin again said state statute does not agree with Dryden’s position. Judge Martinez overruled the objection.

Next, Dryden introduced a motion to quash Scherrer’s indictment due to the unconstitutional discretion of the prosecution in seeking the death penalty. Judge Martinez overruled the motion.

Dryden then introduced a motion to quash the indictment because the aggravating circumstances were not listed in the indictment. The judge overruled the motion.

Dryden finally introduced a motion to declare the death penalty unconstitutional in Scherrer’s case. The judge overruled the motion.

Next, Charles Hoskins, another defense attorney, introduced several motions to strike aggravating circumstances, beginning with the prosecution’s claim that Francis had been killed because of his status as a witness in a felony investigation.

Hoskins said there was no indication what felony investigation Francis had been a witness to. Mahurin said Francis could have been a witness in Scherrer’s federal drug investigation, but he would be able to provide a more formal response in the future. Judge Martinez denied striking the aggravating circumstance, but ordered the prosecution to specify to the defense what Francis had allegedly been witness to.

Next, Hoskins argued that the aggravating circumstance alleged by the prosecution and described in state statute as “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, or depravity of mind…” is unconstitutionally vague. Judge Martinez overruled the motion to strike.

Finally, Hoskins said the state alleges Scherrer killed Francis during the commission of another felony, although no specific felony is named that Francis would have been connected to. The motion was again overruled, with Judge Martinez ordering the state to provide more specificity to the defense.

Scherrer's next appearance in court is scheduled for April 13.

County deeds scanned

There's been a whole lot of scanning going on in the St. Francois County Recorder of Deeds Office this past month.

According to Recorder of Deeds Steve Grider, the State of Missouri is requiring counties to move the content of their deed books — containing documents of transactions, deeds of trusts, warranty deeds, quick claims and easements, among others — to 35 millimeter film for archival purposes.

Over a period of three days, a three-person team set up at the county courthouse annex to scan and digitize 60 of the books.

"The documents in the old deed books are negatives, so they have a black background with white letters," Grider said. "It was done on a photostatic machine and all of this stuff over time will deteriorate. What we're doing now is scanning it and then reversing it so it will then be black print on a white background.

"They're producing an image and then we can get digital film off of that so we'll have film for the state to meet their requirements. We can let the state keep it for us or we can keep it here, but we're probably just going to keep the images because if we need a copy of it, we can request it."

Grider noted that creating films of the documents contained in 60 deed books, costs substantially more than creating an image alone.

"To do between 50 and 60 deed books is approximately $25,000," he said. "Through my preservation fund we have money set aside for this project. That's what it's for — microfilming, storage and preservation of the records, so we can have books rebound or anything. We have money set aside for that."

US Imaging, partnering with Fidlar Technologies, recently scanned those 60 documents over a period of three days.

"US Imaging does the scanning and the filming part of it," Grider said. "Fidlar provides the software part of it. They are our present software vendor, so everything has to be compatible with their system in order to be able to do it.

"Some of the other counties have had projects done by somebody else that wasn't compatible and they have to go through all these conversions and stuff. With US Imaging, they know what they have to do in order for it to go straight into our system."

The team sent to do the job were kept pretty busy getting the job completed as quickly as possible.

"They came in [Monday] morning," Grider said last week. "We opened up at 8 and they were unloading everything and worked until 7 o'clock last night. They were here at 7 o'clock this morning and they're going to work until 7 o'clock tonight."

Grider admitted that it would have been great if the company could have scanned all 467 of the county's deed books at one time.

"The problem with it is that the state grant is only so much each year and you have to do that much work each year in order to get it," he said. "A total of $17,500 of it is coming from the state. We actually send that money up to the Secretary of State's Office. Of the documents recorded, we send so much money to them each year.

"In years past we couldn't use our preservation fund money. We had to get it from General Fund revenue in order to do it. They will allow us to do that now, which is a good thing. We can use the money because our taking care of the books is not going to be a top priority compared to some of the other things. By using the preservation money we're going to be able to extend the project on out."

Grider questions if many people truly realize the importance of preserving and protecting the documents found in the deed books.

"Without these records, title companies can't do searches, and if they can't do that, the banks can't lend money to people to buy homes and stuff," he said. "All these things are tied into the records."

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Man charged with child abuse

A Washington County man is being charged with several felonies after he allegedly abused his girlfriend’s young son over the past year.

Timothy Ligue, 27, of Irondale, is charged with seven counts of the class D felony of abuse or neglect of child.

According to courts documents obtained from the Washington County Prosecutor's Office, between Jan. 1, 2017 and Jan. 10 of this year, Ligue was in a relationship with the victim’s mother. According to the report, a Children’s Division hotline call was received on the boy and his siblings in January of 2018.

The child was interviewed at the Children’s Advocacy Center. The child said Ligue would make him do push-ups as punishment. He also said if he wasn’t doing the push-ups right Ligue would kick him on his side in the chest area.

The boy also told the caseworker that Ligue would put him in a chokehold and hold him there until he passed out. The child added Ligue would also punch him in the stomach and that he smacked him on the head causing his face to hit the wall, making his mouth bleed.

The boy told the caseworker that the abuse happened on more than one occasion. In April, the boy told a teacher at school that Ligue had held his face in a creek. He also told his grandma about the creek incident and that Ligue had bit his ear as a form of punishment.

The boy also told the caseworker with the Children’s Advocacy Center that Ligue had pinched him the groin area “very hard.”

Ligue is being held in the Washington County Jail on a $75,000 bond and upon his release he is not have any contact with anyone under the age of 17 years old.

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Flu cases still high

While the number of flu cases in southeast Missouri remain unusually high compared to most years, health departments in St. Francois and surrounding counties are reporting a slight drop in the numbers for a second week in a row.

"It looks like we're still trending down - which is a good thing," said Ethan White, Communicable Disease nurse with the St. Francois County Health Center. "We have 125 reported cases of Influenza A and 63 cases of Influenza B.

"Our grand total for the whole flu season - since October - is 1,344, but we do see that trending down from the A and B flu from last week, which was at 148 and 68 [respectively]. Slowly but surely we're getting there."

White noted that, compared to last year, the number of flu cases in the county has exploded.

"As of Jan. 22, 2017, we only had 211 recorded cases of flu, so with 1,344 cases, this year's numbers are significantly higher," he said.

The Ste. Genevieve County Health Department is also registering a decline in cases of the flu compared to last week.

"We are slowly decreasing," said Mary Roth, Communicable Disease nurse. "We had 43 cases this week, so we're still averaging around 50 cases a week. Flu is unpredictable. We don't know if maybe another strain is going to pop up later.

"We've still got a couple more months to go of flu season. Our total numbers are over 500 cases - well above what they would usually be. That's high even for a complete total for a flu year. It's widespread, it's severe, it's still out there yet."

In Washington County, there are still "a significant number" of flu cases being reported, according to Sandy Hutchings, nurse supervisor with the county health department.

"There may be a small decline, but not enough to really brag about," she said. "We're seeing a lot of it still. Flu is definitely more prevalent this year. I think the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have compared it to when we had the swine flu - and that's been several years ago. In the state of Missouri, I think there have been seven pediatric deaths."

In Madison County, the health department is still seeing quite a few cases of the flu, especially in school-aged children.

"It has maybe dropped back just a little bit," said Beverly Myers, RN. "Still our highest number of cases we're seeing is in the 5-14 age group, but I'd say we've decreased some from last week's numbers."

In Jefferson County, the number of influenza cases are still high - and deadly.

"We had 324 total cases - 200 with Influenza A and 124 with Influenza B," said Dylan Steigerwald, Jefferson County Health Center epidemiologist. "I would guess that we're going to get a few more cases for last week. That's probably around where it will be.

"We have been seeing our type A cases decrease over the last five or six weeks in a row and our type B has actually been going up. It's what's driving our numbers and keeping them kind of high, I'd say.

"Last week it was mostly evenly distributed among the age groups. Five to 14 year olds are getting the majority of the cases, which kind of makes sense since they're school-aged. We also had one more die last week from the flu."

The health workers at all the county health departments stressed the importance of people getting a flu shot. They all still have vaccine left and encourage anyone who hasn't gotten one yet to do so as soon as possible. Also, be sure to wash hands, cover the mouth when coughing or sneezing and stay home from work if you're sick.