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Starns trial begins to take shape

By By Suzanne Monk
Dec. 30, 2001
The 10th District Circuit Court, which includes Lauderdale County, is not generally in session during the last couple weeks of December. This makes the holiday season a good time to catch up.
I walk around with a list of Lauderdale County Circuit Court case numbers that I check on periodically to see if there have been any developments. These cases fall into a several categories:
Violent crimes;
Large civil lawsuits, lawsuits involving public officials or lawsuits that illustrate a trend like the ones filed against Lauderdale County nursing homes by an out-of-state law firm;
Cases with unusual or quirky circumstances; and
Criminal indictments that came after extensive news coverage of the defendant's arrest.
Starns murder indictment
The prosecution of Peggy Sloan Starns fits three of these four categories.
Starns was indicted for murder July 27 in the death of 4-year-old Angela Schnoor. The little girl had died 17 years earlier during a visit to her father and step-mother's house. At the time, Starns was married to Angela's father, Michael Schnoor.
Angela was taken July 28, 1984, to the emergency room of what was then Meridian Regional Medical Center unconscious and not breathing. She was said to have accidentally smothered while sleeping on a couch. Two days later, she was declared dead; the cause of death was brain damage resulting from suffocation.
The Meridian Police Department investigated the death, but no charges were filed.
Angela's mother, Debbie Boswell, has worked ever since to have her daughter's case re-opened. She asked two Lauderdale County district attorneys to investigate. She even wrote then-President Ronald Reagan and then-U.S. Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery.
Finally, it was Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore who agreed to re-investigate Angela's death and it is special assistant attorneys general who will be sitting at the prosecution table when Starns' trial opens.
District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell, who assisted state officials in the investigation, said in July that new information was key to the case.
The discovery' phase:
Witnesses, evidence
The first phase of any trial happens long before a jury is ever impaneled. It is called "discovery."
During discovery, lawyers for both sides are required to swap information. Every transcript, witness, photograph or exhibit the prosecution might introduce during the trial has to be listed and made available to the defense. The defense must return the favor.
A check this week into Peggy Sloan Starns' file shows that discovery is well under way. Starns is represented by Meridian attorney Dan Self whose discovery requests are always extensive.
Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Leary, lead prosecutor, has filed his response.
As it stands now, the state's list of potential witnesses has 33 names. They include Angela's mother and father, as well as other family members. Former Meridian Police Chief Gregg Lewis, a patrolman in 1984, is on the state's witness list, as is Lauderdale County Coroner Marl Cobler.
Ten people who worked at the hospital are on the witness list. As many as 12 expert witnesses may be called to the stand, including four who were either present at Angela's autopsy or have knowledge of it.
Several people who had contact with Starns after her arrest this year in Baton Rouge may testify. These include two investigators from the Louisiana State Police Department and Lois Garrett, who visited the defendant at the Lauderdale County jail after Starns was extradited.
In his response to Self's discovery request, Leary also listed 769 pages of transcripts, photographs, letters and other papers that may be introduced during the trial.
The 74 documents include hundreds of pages of medical records and reports, transcripts of past interviews with the defendant, transcripts of interviews with potential witnesses and the Meridian Police Department's investigative file.
What's next?
The size of the discovery list indicates that the murder trial of Peggy Sloan Starns, when it happens, could take a while.
Starns was indicted in July, and the trial was set for Nov. 26. It was delayed by mutual consent until April 15. It would not be unusual for a trial this major to be delayed a couple more times.
It should also be noted that not all of the witnesses listed are likely to testify. The prosecution's witness list in the Comcast trial, for example, had more than 70 names. Nowhere near that many people testified, but anyone who might be called to the stand has to be listed in discovery. The same holds true with the documents.
In any event, I'll keep you posted until the trial date arrives.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail her at smonk@themeridianstar.com.

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