ASHEVILLE – The attorney representing an Asheville man accused of stabbing his daughter to death said Seth Willis Pickering plans to plead not guilty and requested a jury trial during a U.S. federal court hearing Wednesday.
Pickering's attorney Mary Ellen Coleman made the comment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell during her client's initial appearance that came a day after a grand jury indicted him, citing several factors that would allow prosecutors to seek capital punishment.
Pickering, 36, of Leicester, faces a state first-degree murder charge in the death of Lila Pickering, who was fatally stabbed Sept. 9 on federal land near the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Brevard Road.
Federal law allows prosecutors to pursue a death sentence in a homicide case if one or more of several aggravating factors are present. Grand jury members examining the Pickering case determined the defendant is over age 18, he inflicted serious bodily injury and the victim was particularly vulnerable due to her young age, all elements that could warrant the death penalty.
The U.S. Attorney's office has not said if it will or will not seek capital punishment against Pickering. Following the hearing, state prosecutors Don Gast and
David Andrew Thorneloe declined to comment on the case.
The state murder charge will remain in place until the federal case against Pickering is resolved or unless federal prosecutors advise the state to dismiss the charge, said Todd Williams, Buncombe County district attorney.
In his initial appearance that took less than 20 minutes, Pickering was alert and answered several questions from the judge. He leaned back in a chair wearing a dark brown jumpsuit and glasses.
Once Howell read the indictment aloud, he told Pickering that if the state chooses to seek capital punishment he has the right to be appointed two attorneys since he is eligible after he filed an affidavit of indigency, used to determine if he is eligible for a court-appointed lawyer.
According to the document, Pickering indicated he is unemployed and lives on a monthly income of $700, including food stamps and a disability payment.
Howell asked Pickering if he would like to be appointed two attorneys, one of which will be familiar with capital punishment cases.
Pickering told the judge, "I've had the opportunity (to talk to my lawyer). I would like a second attorney."
The next act of business was to schedule a detention hearing within three-five days, however, Coleman waived Pickering's right to that hearing and said it could be held at a later date.
Pickering's next appearance in front of a U.S. magistrate judge was scheduled for Dec. 5. His next appearance in Buncombe County District Court was scheduled for Nov. 30.
He remained in custody at the Buncombe County Detention Facility.
Lila, a first-grader at Johnston Elementary, was in protective custody for a month when her father took her from the home on Sept. 9 over the objections of her temporary caretaker.
The child had previously lived with Pickering, who was allowed to see his daughter in supervised visits. It’s unclear why social workers with Buncombe County’s Department of Health and Human Services removed Lila from her father’s care and placed her in a home of a Johnston Elementary classmate.
Lila’s mother, who is also Pickering’s estranged wife, lives in Florida.
Before an Amber Alert could be issued in Lila's disappearance, two National Park Service rangers spotted an out-of-place car parked in a grassy area near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and saw a man and child down a steep embankment.
The rangers watched Pickering build a small fire and suspected he might be poaching ginseng. Shortly after one ranger greeted him, the father lunged toward his daughter without warning, stabbing her in the heart and a lung, according to federal officials.
“Now they will never be able to take her away from me,” Pickering late told a ranger, according to a federal complaint.
Of the 62 people housed on federal death row, one includes a former Buncombe County resident, Richard Allen Jackson, according to the Death Penalty Litigation Center.
Now 47 years old, Jackson was convicted in the 1994 gunshot death of Karen Styles. The 22-year-old Candler woman disappeared while jogging in Bent Creek on Halloween morning, and was found nearly a month later, having been duct-taped to a tree and sexually assaulted.
The federal government has not executed a death row inmate since 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. died by lethal injection in the Terre Haute, Indiana prison where Jackson is also detained. Jones, a Gulf War veteran, had been convicted in the 1995 rape and murder of Tracie McBride, an Army soldier.
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