GRETNA, La. – Trial is set to open Monday for a man accused of killing a New Orleans' French Quarter stripper, dismembering her and dumping body parts of the woman into the Gulf of Mexico.
Terry Speaks is charged with second-degree murder along with his then-girlfriend, Margaret Sanchez, in the death of 24-year-old Jaren Lockhart. Remains of Lockhart, a Bourbon Street dancer, washed ashore on neighboring Mississippi beaches days after her June 2012 disappearance.
The judge is expected first to consider Speaks' request to fire his public defender, John Benz, and consider whether defense lawyers can tell jurors about the criminal history of two prosecution witnesses, both jailhouse informants set to testify against Speaks. Any decisions by District Judge Stephen Grefer in a suburban New Orleans court in Gretna could prompt a trial delay.
Speaks has pleaded not guilty in the case. Conviction on the charge would mean a mandatory life sentence.
A trial for Sanchez hasn't been scheduled. She also has pleaded not guilty.
Court documents show Speaks and Sanchez are accused of fatally stabbing Lockhart. Parts of Lockhart's body began washing ashore on Mississippi's Gulf Coast beaches days after her disappearance, and authorities then focused on Speaks and Sanchez, who lived in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner at the time.
A Kenner police detective testified during a preliminary examination in May that Speaks told a jail cellmate that Speaks and his female partner had picked up a stripper at a Bourbon Street club in New Orleans' tourist area, used drugs and drove to a location where the women got into a fight ending in the dancer's death.
But a defense pretrial motion said FBI agents and local investigators had uncovered no evidence to show Lockhart -- a dancer at the Temptations Gentlemens Club -- was ever in Speaks' apartment or in Sanchez' car. Despite multiple searches and microscopic examinations, not a strand of DNA or a particle of dirt indicated Lockhart's presence, Benz wrote the judge requesting the indictment be thrown out.
In May, Grefer refused to dismiss the indictment against Speaks and Sanchez.
Speaks and Sanchez also face charges of obstructing justice and conspiring to obstruct justice, according to authorities, who say they are accused of severing body parts and dumping them into the water.
Prosecutors have said they linked Speaks and Sanchez to Lockhart through other testimony, surveillance video and license plate photos, as well as a "damning" email in which Speaks wrote to Sanchez while in federal prison, where she was serving time for an unrelated crime after his arrest.
Part of a section of the email quoted in a prosecution motion says, "I want to tell everything to the people just so you can suffer like me. I did everything to clean up the mess we made and where's the thanks ... You're the one they'll fry and not me."
According to prosecutors, witnesses said that the two asked several other dancers at Temptations and a club next door -- Stiletto's -- to go with them to a private party early on June 6, 2012.
"While the other dancers who were propositioned declined, Jaren accepted, telling another dancer that she needed to `make rent,"' Assistant District Attorney Douglas Freese wrote in a court document.
Freese added in documents that security cameras showed the three walking together for several blocks in New Orleans -- and 22 minutes after the last shot in the French Quarter -- a license plate recognition camera between the French Quarter and the couple's apartment recorded Sanchez's plate.
A witness has said that Sanchez and Speaks were both in the car when it passed a Kenner intersection late June 7, and other cameras show the car heading toward Mississippi on an interstate the evening of July 7 and returning toward New Orleans later that night, according to prosecutors.
Neither Freese nor Benz responded to requests for comment Thursday.
Speaks wrote to Grefer on June 1, asking the judge to remove Benz as his public defender, saying he "has not put forth the assistance that has been needed for such a high profile case." He said that in the 210 days he has been jailed, he has spoken to Benz eight times for no more than an hour at a time.
Benz did not respond to an email requesting comment on Speaks' motion.
Separately, Benz has asked the judge to allow the defense to tell jurors about the crimes of the two informants expected to testify, one who pleaded guilty to brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence and the other a man convicted of murder to further a criminal enterprise. Benz wrote that those criminal histories should be divulged to jurors to show both are liars.