LACLEDE COUNTY, Mo. — The trial for convicted-killer Martin Dean Priest, accused of murdering Eldon teenager Tammy Rothganger in 1984, began today.
The trial is being held in Laclede County court, after a change of venue from Miller County, whose prosecutor Ben Winfrey is working with Assistant Attorney General Monty Platz to prosecute the case. Priest is represented by James Willis, of Jefferson City.
Priest is charged with Capital Murder. The prosecution has waived seeking the death penalty.
Jury selection was accomplished on Tuesday, along with opening statements, in which the attorneys keyed in on what is likely the prosecution’s strongest asset: a witness and accomplice to the alleged crime, whose testimony could be damning for Priest.
The witness—a juvenile at the time—told investigators he saw Priest stop the car and hit Rothganger in the back of the head with a wrench, causing her to lose consciousness. Priest then allegedly raped Rothganger, strangling her until she was dead, according to the witness. The witness, previously identified in court documents only as D.N., told investigators that he and Priest hid the body at a residence before later returning to transport and bury the body in an unmarked location.
In Tuesday’s statements, the prosecution talked about that witness, saying he would testify in the trial. The defense began working to undermine his credibility, saying he was lying.
Since 1985, Priest has been sitting in a Kansas maximum security prison, serving a life sentence for an unrelated homicide in Wichita. He faced charges for—and was subsequently acquitted on—the murder of two other people, though, and nearly faced charges in the murder of a third (a judge decided there was not enough evidence to proceed with a second-degree murder charge in that case). He was charged with Capital Murder in Miller County, in January of 2016, and was extradited to Miller County in August of 2018.
The Laclede County jury of 10 women and two men will determine whether Priest will return to prison, likely by the end of this week.
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