State of Nevada vs. John Kelly O’Connor
Last week John Kelly O’Connor formally pleaded not guilty to four counts he’s facing in the 2018 shooting inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on East Richards Street in Fallon.
Two victims, Charles “Bert” Miller and his brother Duane Miller, were shot in the incident. Bert, a volunteer firefighter, died from his injuries after being fired at 11 times.
The four counts levied against O’Connor include: murder in the first degree; battery with use of a deadly weapon with substantial bodily harm; assault with a deadly weapon; and carrying a concealed explosive, firearm or other dangerous weapon without a permit.
If convicted on the charge of murder O’Connor would be eligible for the death penalty in a separate phase of the trial. In total, O’Connor could spend the rest of his life in prison with or without the possibility of parole based on the list of charges.
The courtroom in Fallon was solemn as Senior District Judge William Maddox read the charges and possible penalties O’Connor could face. Miller’s family was seated behind the prosecution within full view of O’Connor, as they have been for every phase of these proceedings since summer 2018.
As O’Connor left the courtroom the Miller family stood up and turned their backs to him as he exited.
“I trust the system, I trust judge Maddox and believe in our cause.”
Potential change of venue
The prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Lane Mills and Chelsea Sanford, indicated its intent to seek the death penalty against O’Connor and to pursue the case in Churchill County. The prosecution noted a list of 99 potential witnesses for the trial.
O’Connor’s defense team, Reno defense attorney Richard Davies and Aaron Mouritsen from Fernley, indicated that it would argue to move the trial to another venue as they are concerned that Churchill County may not be able to provide an unbiased jury pool. Davies noted that the victim and defendant were both long-time residents in the community, both were parishioners at the same church, and are likely known by the potential jury pool.
Judge Maddox made clear to both prosecution and the defense that they will question potential jurors to determine if they can serve without bias and deal with the case fairly before attempting a change of venue. If a jury pool cannot be selected from Churchill County then other locations will be selected; at this time, Carson City is a consideration.
O’Connor also waived his right to a speedy trial. An issue that delayed this stage of the process was status of O’Connor’s mental competency, which was in dispute for more than a year. The defendant was sent to Reno’s Lakes Crossing for evaluation and was medicated to stand trial. In the last hearings in New River Justice Court O’Connor’s mental status was determined to no longer be at issue.
In an interview with O’Connor’s counsel after the hearing, Davies had this to say of the case:
“Mr. O’Connor stands accused of entering a church and shooting a member of the church that he had a personal relationship with for a reason. And then he went to go back to his house where the District Attorney Art Mallory facilitated his surrender. And so, we feel that Mr. Mallory’s participation in this investigation should make this district attorney’s office recuse themselves as prosecutors in this case. So, I think that’s, that’s a big underscore in that…I think it’s going to go great. I trust the system, I trust judge Maddox, and believe in our cause.”
A community united
I asked two men sitting outside the courthouse if they think it would be difficult for O’Connor to get a fair trial.
“Yes, really, really,” was their immediate response.
Leaving Fallon I also had a chance to talk to Churchill County Chamber of Commerce president Lucy Carnahan. She was busy that night preparing for a sold-out Fallon Chamber of Commerce dinner at the Western Nevada College campus. She said that Fallon is a tight-knit community with strong roots and that in times of need, neighbors support one another.
Carnahan also noted that at last year’s Chamber dinner, in February 2019, the organization awarded Bert Miller’s widow with the Person of the Year award in honor of her late husband’s contributions to the community.
It’s clear to many at this time that this case will be hard to navigate on several levels. On one hand, you have a community united in support after a horrible tragedy. On the other hand, you have members of the community who aren’t sure a fair trial is possible in Fallon. What is clear is there will be a serious attempt at finding justice. The question is how?
At this time trial is to be set for March or April 2021.