Defense says: Melissa Harding-Jones to stand trial

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Wednesday, May 15, 2013


PUNTA GORDA — The woman charged in connection with the 1999 death of 4-year-old Pilar Rodriguez finally will stand trial in September, after nearly two years of failed plea deals, her defense attorney, Robert Barrar, said Tuesday.

Attorneys on both sides appeared before 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Amy Hawthorne during a pretrial conference Tuesday at the Charlotte County Justice Center. Hawthorne officially will set the trial date Aug. 28.

Assistant State Attorney Daniel Feinberg and Barrar still are trying to hammer out the details before the trial, which is expected to take place sometime in September, and to last for more than two weeks.

Melissa Harding-Jones, the only person charged in the case, faces a count of aggravated manslaughter of a child. Harding-Jones, who was not present for Tuesday’s conference, officially was charged in August 2010. She lives in Lake Stevens, Wash., and is married with two children.

Pilar, whose body never has been found, was in the care of her baby sitter, Harding-Jones, formerly Melissa Cooper — who brought the child to Punta Gorda from Hollywood, Fla. — and her then-boyfriend, Keith Wilson.

According to a motion filed in August 2012, prosecutors will try to show that Wilson beat the child to death; however Harding-Jones is the only suspect currently charged in the case.

Two plea deals have failed so far — Harding-Jones backed out of one in June 2011, and then a judge rejected a proposed agreement in September of that year.

Barrar said he is prepared to go to trial, but anticipates selecting a jury will be a challenge.

‘This is going to be a tough trial selection because it is such a high-profile case,’ Barrar said. ‘There are not too many people over the age of 20 that haven’t heard of this case.’

Barrar said he wants to interview all 50 potential jurors individually, although Hawthorne recommended giving the potential jurors a questionnaire. A panel of six jurors will decide whether Harding-Jones is guilty.

Barrar said he his bringing in witnesses from all over the U.S., as far away as Wisconsin, to testify on Harding-Jones’ behalf.

Feinberg said jurors will have to review hours of defendant testimony recorded on different occasions over the course of a decade.

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