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Pam Hilton talks about her daughter Wednesday, August 17, 2016 in the Cold Case Unit. Tuesday afternoon the Hamilton County Grand Jury indicted 43-year old Jason Kirk Sanford of Westland, Michigan, for First Degree Murder in the June 2000 death of Sarah Lea (Davis) Perry.
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Jason Sanford

Attorneys are traveling to Michigan next month on the state's dime to depose an important witness who won't be available to testify in a 17-year-old East Ridge murder.

Because of his brain cancer, Michel Penetrics won't be able to travel to Chattanooga and testify against Jason Sanford, who is accused of fatally strangling his ex-girlfriend in June 2000. So instead, prosecutors and defense attorneys are heading to him on Nov. 30 to preserve his testimony under oath, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz ruled Monday.

Prosecutors believe Sanford traveled to Michigan in the days after Sarah Perry's killing in 2000 and discussed it with Penetrics. Sanford, 44, lived in the area until August 2016, when District Attorney General Neal Pinkston secured his indictment for first-degree murder and had him extradited. Authorities questioned Sanford when the homicide happened but said they cracked the case when some witnesses clarified their statements.

Sanford's defense attorneys, however, said Penetrics' information came from a third-hand conversation between his mother and Michigan police. They think Penetrics isn't a reliable witness because of his memory and also want to depose his mother to testify about his competency.

"Our investigation has revealed that Mr. Penetrics has difficulty remembering from five minutes to the next," defense attorney Johnny Houston said. "That comes from his mother, who is his part-time caregiver."

Houston said Greenholtz may need to attend the deposition, which isn't common. Normally, a judge rules on whether something is admissible either before trial or during trial without the jury present.

"But you really can't do that here," Houston said.

"Why not?" Greenholtz asked.

"Because it might be too late to go back and cure whatever issue might arise," Houston said.

Greenholtz agreed and said he would be available by video on Nov. 30. He said the state needs to pay for Sanford's defense travel expenses and select a secure location for the deposition.

There is no trial date set yet.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

This story was updated Oct. 30 at 11:20 p.m. with more information.

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