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Attempted First Degree Murder Trial Convened In Taylor County

By Bill Smith, Old Town News

PERRY, Fl.- (OTN) -The "Attempted First Degree Murder" and "Aggravated Battery" trial of Julie Cook, 35, of Cross City, was under way Monday morning in the 3rd Circuit Courtroom of Judge James Roy Bean, which was moved from Dixie County to Taylor County, when the State of Florida was unable to seat a jury from 29 prospective jurors in Cross City in January of this year.

At the time that they were unable to seat a jury in Dixie County, Mr. Lin Williams, Defense Attorney for Cook, had made a "Motion For Change of Venue," (move to another court), of this trial since it was felt that, try as they may, a jury of peers could not be picked from anyone in this county.

Last month, Judge Bean issued an "Order of Change of Venue" for the trial to be moved to Perry, Florida, the county seat for Taylor County, where, out of a pool of approximately 20 prospective jurors, 8 people were selected to serve as jurors. Five women and one man as well as two men as alternate jurors were chosen. The alternates are so that in the event that one of the selected jurors would be unable to continue as a juror, the alternate would then take there place.

These jurors that were selected were chosen from a variety of backgrounds to include a liquor store owner, former clerk with the judicial system, a housewife, store clerk and millright.

In his opening remarks to the jury, The states attorney, Dave Phelps said, "The state will present enough evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant Julie Cook, is guilty of the charges brought against her." Lin Williams, the Defense Counsel for Cook, then stood and presented his clients case to the jurors. In his opening remarks he told the jury, "The defense does not disagree with the state that Donald Chavous was sprayed with gasoline and then set afire." He went on further to say that, "The defense does not disagree with the state, that my client, Ms. Cook, set Mr. Chavous on fire." "What the defense does intend to prove, isthat Ms. Cook committed these acts in self defense of her son Opie Pate, and herself, in the unprovoked attack that was committed against her son and her by Donald Chavous," Williams said.

Phelps opened the trial by calling his first witness Donald Chavous, the alleged victim whom the gasoline was sprayed on. When Donald had taken the witness stand he spent approximately 45 minutes of questioning from both the prosecution and the defense attorneys. In his testimony he stated that, "I saw Opie at the Dixie One Stop. I stopped and went over to him at which time he and I started to argue and I pushed him, and he pushed me back, and than I punched him." "How many times did you punch him," he was asked, and Chavous, through his own testimony, and fidgeting the whole time while being questioned, stated that "I punched him once."

Then he was asked a question about his size verses that of Opie Pate and he said, "I am 6 foot tall and weigh between 185 and 200 pounds. Opie Pate, is about 5' 7" tall and weighs around 145 pounds." Chavous also stated when asked by Williams if he had gone looking for Pate when he found out that Pate had run his girlfriend off the road, Chavous answered no, but later recanted that statement and said yes. Chavous was unable to look at the jury or the attorneys during questioning. The next witness to take the stand was on Wednesday morning at which time Mr. Phelps called for the state, Leslie Hatcher, the brother of the DixieCounty Sheriff Dewey Hatcher. During his testimony he was visibly irritated by the questions being asked of him by Williams, especially when it came to the questions of him being able to take care of his customers, which he claimed were 35 on the property, and watching what was going on outside, leaning against a window that he had testified in deposition last year that, "I didn't ever thrust my head against the window,"yet he was on the phone talking to the sheriff, and the ambulance, and taking care of customers, and leaning against the window to see out, and keep ing the customers satisfied, all in a brief moment of a fight which you claimed lasted no more then 1 minute or so?"

After further questioning about the fight Hatcher stated, "That is the Dixie County Way."

The witness then started making sarcastic remarks to the defense counsel and after a couple of more questions, was released after a final question of how many customers were in there, and he then said "10," instead of 35.

The next one to be questioned was Kenneth Hunt, Donald Chavous' stepbrother. It was his testimony that, "When I was told by Anna Marie DuBois and Donna that Opie had run them off the road, myself and Michael Driggers went out looking for him." He went on further to testify that, "We were coming down Highway 19 when we saw Opie Pate and at the same time a Pepsi truck pulled up and blocked our sight for a few seconds, then we saw Opie fighting with my brother and I got angry and I was upset and Julie Cook was on Donald's back trying to get him off of Opie when I grabbed her by the shoulders pushing her out of the way and telling her that we will break up the fight." Williams then asked how tall Hunt was and how much he weighed and he stated, 6 feet 4 inches and I weigh about 175-180."

Hunt also agreed that his testimony was more accurate today then it was in Sept- ember during his deposition?" Three deputies, Julie Herring, Joseph Hamner and Scott Hardin were briefly on the stand and questioned, however, their testimony didn't add much credence to the testimony already given.

The final witness of the states case was probably one of the best witnesses for the defendant. In his testimony, Mr. Edgar Villenueva stated that, "I saw two guys fighting when I pulled up with the Pepsi-Cola truck. The fight was going on about fifteen minutes and no one was trying to break it up." When asked by Williams if he saw anyone bashing Pates' head into the side of the car at first he denied it then, after William's showed him his testimony in the deposition in September of last year, it refreshed his memory and then stated, "I saw someone was bashing someone's head into the car." In his closing statement Villanueva stated that "The fight had been continuous from the time I arrived."

What wasn't brought out to the public over the past several months was the reasons that Julie Cook did what she did to Donald Chavous. During many recesses that we had over the course of the past two days, I met with Ms. Cook, and asked her to explain to me what her reasoning was for spraying the gasoline on Donald and lighting it. Here is what her story was to me. "You see," said Miss Cook, When Opie had just become a teenager, he had problems in his earlier life. So many emotional problems that he attempted to take his life by hanging."

Through tears she continued her story to me, "When he was in the hospital the doctors told me that he had literally blown all of the blood vessels in his brain and that any severe blow to his head would cause him permanent brain damage or death."

"When I saw Donald Chavous banging Opies head into the side of that car not once but three times or more, all I could hear was the voice of that doctor telling me that if Opie took a severe trauma to the head it could kill him or cause permanent brain damage, I reacted like any other mother could or would out of love for her child." In closing she stated that, "I struck that lighter the first time and Donald jumped back a couple of feet and looked down. When he saw that he wasn't on fire he jumped right back on Opie again banging his head and smashing his elbow down on top of Opie's head as he brought his knee up and hit Opie in the groin or stomach with it."

"This is a very unfortunate incident that has divided the people of Dixie County into pieces," says one resident. What happened happened and it is very unfortunate, you don't want to send a mother away to prison for doing what she thought was the only way to get this boy off of her child.

Was this the right answer? Is she guilty or innocent? That is a decision that will have to be made by the jury of 5 women and one man sometime tomorrow or Friday.

For continuing coverage, see The Old Town News

-- Duane Schwingel (, March 22, 2000

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