Judge denies change of venue for Stewart, Zachary Lambert

Thursday, July 25, 2002

A Sharp County jury will decide the fate of Stewart Lambert, 3rd Judicial District prosecuting attorney, and his son, Zachary, when they go to trial next month, despite objections by their attorneys and a request for a change of venue.

Motions were filed by Kent Rubens, who is representing Stewart Lambert, and Tom Thompson, Zachary Lambert's attorney, last week on behalf of the two men, asking Special Judge Floyd Lofton to try the Lamberts in another county.

"The minds of the inhabitants of Sharp County have been so politicized and prejudiced against the defendant that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in this county," the motions stated.

Lofton heard the motions July 22 in the courtroom of Cherokee Village City Hall. Rubens and Thompson called four witnesses and submitted affidavits from two others stating they did not think the Lamberts could get a fair trial in Sharp County.

Judge Kevin King, attorney Michelle Huff, who worked as Lambert's deputy prosecutor, and Jack Huffmaster and Michael Steele, both former Sharp County sheriff candidates, testified for the Lamberts.

King told the court he thought the only issue in Lambert's bid for re-election as prosecutor was the criminal charges against him and his son. "I think the only reason Stewart had an opponent was because of the charges," King said.

King said he thought the publicity surrounding the Lamberts' case had been such that it would be hard to find a jury that had not been tainted by media coverage.

Lofton asked King if he had read or heard anything published by the media indicating the two men's guilt and King replied he had not. "The information I have read has been very thorough," he said.

Steele said he had spoken with numerous citizens who seemed convinced the two men were guilty and were concerned they might find some way "to get out of it."

Huff spoke candidly when asked what the attitude of the community was toward Zachary Lambert. "Are you sure you want me to do this?" she asked Thompson as he questioned her.

"The attitude is that Zach has gotten away with things over the years and was probably going to get away with it again," she answered.

Huffmaster said he thought the election results for Stewart Lambert indicated the public's perception of his guilt. "Two-thirds of the county have an opinion about something," he said, referring to the election results.

Although all four witnesses testified in favor of a change of venue, all four also said they thought Sharp Countians had always been fair and honest jurors.

Huff said the county had experienced high profile cases but never such a high profile defendant.

"The burden is on me to see to it they will get a fair trial," Lofton said. "And I will do that."

Lofton said that though he was denying the request for a change of venue he reserved the right to change his mind. "If it becomes evident the people of Sharp County can't render a fair verdict -- if we can't find a jury that can do that -- then I will ask for a change," Lofton said.

Lofton asked for all of the police officers involved in the cases to come into the courtroom. He admonished some of them for making comments to the press after they had been instructed not to do so.

Last week's issue of the Villager Journal was submitted into evidence by Rubens.

Rubens said officers with the state police were complying with the request but Cherokee Village Chief of Police Larry Smith was not. "I have someone who carries a badge and the title of chief of police still commenting on the case," Rubens complained to the judge.

Lofton told the officers any violations of his instructions would be dealt with severely and harshly.

Lofton set trial dates for both Lamberts, as well as John Thurman, for Aug. 21. There were no motions filed by Thurman's attorney to be heard.

Stewart Lambert is charged with one felony count of hindering apprehension or prosecution and one misdemeanor count of obstructing governmental operations.

Zachary Lambert, 21, and John Thurman, 21, are charged with felony charges of aggravated robbery and assault for an attempted armed robbery that allegedly occurred Jan. 8 in Cherokee Village.

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