(JACKSON COUNTY, Ark.) — The woman accused of killing a former Arkansas state senator has pleaded not guilty to new charges.
Rebecca O’Donnell, currently awaiting trial in the killing of former Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, was charged earlier this month with attempting to orchestrate a spree of murders-for-hire from inside the Jackson County Jail, where she had been held on a capital murder charge since June.
The new charges levied by Jackson County are two counts of solicitation to commit capital murder and two counts of solicitation to commit tampering with physical evidence.
Prosecutors allege O’Donnell targeted Collins-Smith’s ex-husband and his new wife, as well as the former judge and former prosecutor assigned to her case.
Defense attorney Lee Short dismissed the new charges almost immediately after they were filed, telling ABC News that high-profile homicide cases can bring jailhouse informants out of the woodwork.
“It’s not surprising at all — inmates do it all the time,” Short told ABC News at the time. “In high-profile cases, especially homicides, people tend to seek opportunities to improve their situations by giving statements against people.”
O’Donnell’s lawyers on Wednesday waived a formal arraignment and entered a plea of not guilty.
Moments later, Judge John Fogleman allowed attorneys representing ABC News to intervene, hearing arguments from the defense, the state, and counsel for ABC News on the issue of lifting or modifying a gag order that restricts the release of case documents connected to O’Donnell’s prosecution.
“It’s important that the public be given the full opportunity to watch the justice system in action and understand the charges and what is being alleged,” said John Tull, who’s representing ABC News and the Arkansas Press Association.
Enacted hours after Collins-Smith’s body was found, the gag order issued June 5 resulted in any and all records — “affadavits, law enforcement reports, documents, recordings, statements, search warrants, crime lab reports, medical examiner reports” — be sealed until a court rules otherwise.
The order also included that officials involved with the case are prohibited from giving extrajudicial statements or speaking about the case at all.
Six months after O’Donnell’s arrest, ABC News filed a motion requesting the opportunity to argue against the order. The former presiding judge, David Goodson, denied that motion without a hearing. A week later, Goodson recused himself from the case.
Last month, ABC News asked newly appointed Judge John Fogleman to reconsider that motion, on First Amendment grounds, and Tull argued on Wednesday that “the public and the professional press have the right to observe the criminal justice system at work.”
Newly appointed prosecuting attorney Robert Dittrich disagreed.
“I believe my chance of seeding an impartial jury will be seriously impacted if the seal is lifted,” he told the court. “If there is more reporting, there will be more chattering, more this, more that. I believe that it’s adding fuel to the fire.”
The defense team also opposed lifting the orders.
“The purposes of this trial, to achieve justice, are not going to be advanced by opening up investigatory documents,” Short said.
Fogleman announced during court that he’d be filing a new order to seal, supplanting the previous two orders, stipulating that any document must undergo his review before being placed under seal.
“In this case, involving the death of a senator and former representative … and where the death penalty is being sought, the court recognizes the considerable interest from the press,” Fogleman said. “Sometimes constitutional rights can collide with one another, and in this case that is [freedom of the press] with the defendant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.”
Fogleman also modified the gag order, lifting the order barring disclosure from officials at the medical examiner’s office, the Arkansas crime lab and the Arkansas Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The judge ruled that the trial addressing the Jackson County charges would be scheduled for November or December 2020, only after the murder trial had concluded.
O’Donnell’s next scheduled court appearance is Feb 28.
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