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Attorney wants murder trial moved from Itawamba County

[01/05/01] An attorney for a Vicksburg man accused of the June sexual assault and killing of an Itawamba County teen-ager said Thursday he plans to ask the court to move the trial out of the girl’s hometown.

“This is one of the most highly reported cases I’ve seen not only in Itawamba County, but statewide,” said James Johnston, the court-appointed lawyer for Thomas Edwin Loden. “I think it’s going to be impossible to get an unbiased jury pool.”

Close-knit Itawamba County was shaken when 16-year-old Leesa Gray disappeared on her way home from work as a waitress June 23 and was found dead the next day in Loden’s minivan.

Loden, a 35-year-old Marine recruiter arrested the day after Leesa’s disappearance, has also been charged with rape and four counts of sexual battery in the case.

Authorities believe he sabotaged a tire on the teen’s car, then abucted her on the pretense of providing help after following her from the restaurant.

Loden pleaded innocent to the charges in November. Reports from Loden’s family indicate that he tried to take his own life before he was arrested, but Johnston would not say if he plans to pursue an insanity defense.

“The state is opposed to a change of venue we think he can get a fair trial right here in Itawamba County,” said Assistant District Attorney Dennis Ferris. “But we also understand that with the gravity of the case, it might well be moved.”

Prosecutors are hoping that a court date will be set in the first three months of the year, Ferris said.

Deadline for plea changes and pretrial motions in the case is Jan. 12, but Johnston said he has asked for an extension. No court date or trial judge has yet been assigned to the case.