A tow-truck driver accused in the shooting death of a Bluffton man on Christmas Eve 2010 now faces a charge of murder, not voluntary manslaughter, it was announced Monday.
A grand jury indicted Preston Oates, 30, on a murder charge earlier this year, three years after a grand jury initially charged him with voluntary manslaughter, Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton said Monday.
Thornton, a prosecutor for the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office, said the murder indictment had been sealed to prevent further media coverage of the case. It was not immediately known which circuit court judge ordered the murder indictment kept secret.
Oates was charged in January 2011 with voluntary manslaughter after reportedly shooting 34-year-old Carlos Olivera during dispute over an incorrectly parked minivan in Bluffton's Edgefield neighborhood. Oates had placed a wheel lock, or "boot," on Olivera's minivan, which was parked outside the home of Olivera's brother.
On Monday, Oates' defense attorney, Jared Newman, requested that the prosecution choose one of the two charges -- murder or voluntary manslaughter -- for the trial. He said he didn't want the jury to have to choose between the charges.
Thornton told Judge Brooks Goldsmith the voluntary manslaughter charge would be dropped and replaced with the murder charge.
Thornton said the murder charge, which had not been revealed until Monday, was filed under seal to avoid "media drama." He told Goldsmith the manslaughter charge had not been dropped earlier to avoid speculation by the press.
Thornton declined to comment after Monday's court proceedings, saying he didn't want to comment on a pending case.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said his office "agreed with the defense to ask the judge to seal the (murder) indictment. ... We didn't fight them," he said.
Oates' trial was initially scheduled for February. Before the trial was to begin, a grand jury handed down the murder indictment against Oates. To avoid more pre-trial publicity on the eve of a trial that already had attracted considerable media attention, the defense and prosecution agreed the murder indictment should be sealed, and a judge complied, Stone said.
Grand jury indictments are typically made public soon after they are issued.
Stone said both sides were concerned about the amount of publicity that already had occurred and feared that more could prejudice a jury pool.
Had the murder indictment been made public when the grand jury issued it, it almost certainly would have been publicized.
A biased jury pool could have made it more difficult for Oates to get a fair trial, Stone said. If not enough impartial jurors could be found to sit on the case, it could have become necessary to move the trial out of Beaufort County, he said.
Stone acknowledged the public has an interest in developments in the Oates case, but said that "the defendant has a right to a fair trial."
On the night Oates reportedly shot Olivera, the two were arguing heatedly about the boot Oates had placed on Olivera's minivan. Olivera, who had a concealed weapon permit, showed Oates a gun he was carrying, according to the Sheriff's Office. Oates then retrieved a gun from his truck and shot Olivera six times -- four times in the back.
Nelson Olivera, who witnessed the incident, told investigators his brother never pointed a gun at Oates. Oates' attorneys argue their client acted in self-defense.
Jury selection began at about 1 p.m. Monday at the Beaufort County Courthouse. It took about three hours to seat a jury from a pool of nearly 120 people.
The jury of seven men and five women was told to return to the courthouse at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday to start the trial. Two men were chosen as alternate jurors.
During the selection, Goldsmith asked potential jurors case-specific questions, such as whether any of them had ever had a car towed, lived in Edgefield where the shooting occurred, or signed a petition expressing an opinion related to the case.
The judge denied a motion by Newman to try Oates separately on charges of murder and possession of a weapon in the commission of a violent crime. The weapon-possession charge would have been heard by Goldsmith immediately following a verdict in the murder case, Newman said.
The trial is expected to last through the week. Thornton read a list of nearly 50 potential witnesses during jury selection that the prosecution could call.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.