The Trial Begins
On September 30, 1991, four years and sixteen days after the murder of Vincent and Margaret Sherry, the case that had been building for so long finally came to trial. It was held in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, roughly sixty miles northwest of Biloxi, with Judge Charles Pickering presiding. Press coverage was intense, with TV news mobile units and their towering microwave antennas camped out outside the federal court building. It had all the trappings of a media circus, with LaRa Sharpe sweeping into the courtroom in sunglasses and her bleached blonde hair flowing, smiling and waving to reporters. Clearly she was reveling in the publicity and her "fifteen minutes of fame," as Andy Warhol might have put it.
Security was very tight around the courtroom, amid fears of possible retribution by members of the Dixie Mafia still roaming around freely. Armed guards and federal marshals surrounded the court and monitored those entering the room with metal detectors. Escape attempts and attempts to kill the defendants or witnesses were not being ruled out. But, to everyone's relief, no disruptions occurred at any point during the trial.
For the prosecution, Peter Barrett and Al Jernigan got the call. To the disappointment of many who wanted to see justice for the Sherrys, the U.S. Attorney's most seasoned prosecutor, James Tucker, was not assigned to the case for reasons never explained. For his defense, Gillich, who could afford it, had four attorneys in his camp, including his daughter Tina (who was later disqualified); son-in-law Keith Pisarich, a former partner with the Halat law firm; and Albert Necaise. Nix was represented by Jim Rose, widely regarded as one of the top criminal defense attorneys on the Gulf Coast. Michael Adelman represented LaRa and Rex Jones, a former county attorney, was appointed by the court to represent Ransom.
In his opening statement, Barrett emphasized for the jury that the case was not about trying to pinpoint the killer or killers. No one had been named in that specific role. Instead the prosecution's case would be to prove a conspiracy to kill the judge and his activist wife. He cautioned the twelve jurors that there weren't going to be any "silver bullets" or "smoking guns" in the case, or any taped conversations with any of the defendants admitting guilt. Instead, he advised them to focus on the lonelyhearts scam and the role it played in the conspiracy that resulted in the Sherrys' violent deaths.
As expected, the defense attorneys, in their opening statements, pounced on the credibility of the prosecutions' star witnesses. Rose postulated that the case was actually "a scam being run on the United States government." He went on to accuse the government's witnesses of "looking for something," more specifically, a deal to reduce their sentences. He also blasted the prosecution for tarnishing the reputation of an upstanding citizen in their pursuit of their case. He wasn't talking about his client or any of the other defendants: he was referring to Judge Vincent Sherry. It was, Rose maintained, Vince's reputation that was being sullied through the government's linkage of him to the Dixie Mafia underworld.
Necaise eloquently defended Gillich, arguing that his client had no motive for ordering the murder of Vince who, he said, represented many of Gillich's clients and employees and whom Gillich counted as a friend. Necaise also blasted Rex Armistead, calling him a "bounty hunter," and charging that Armistead and Fabian manufactured the entire conspiracy story so they could collect a sizable fee from the Sherry family. The other defense attorneys, Adelman for LaRa and Jones for Ransom, similarly maintained their clients' innocence.
So, on the opening day of the trial, the prosecution's strategy began to unfold but it was not yet apparent to the defense. While the prosecution focused on the original conspiracy charges, the defense seemed intent on exonerating their clients of murder. None of the defendants had been charged specifically with it, though, so a lot of energy and effort were to be expended by the defense in a basically irrelevant direction.