Can average Del Norte County citizens perform their civic duty as fair and impartial jurors even if they already know about a criminal case before they are impaneled?
Let’s hope so, because otherwise every major trial would have to be shipped elsewhere, resulting in additional heartache and expense for the families of victims, and extra cost to Del Norte taxpayers.
We have a small population base, and when someone dies a violent death here, it’s only natural that pretty much everyone hears about it. If defense attorneys insist that the only proper jurors are ones who had no prior knowledge of the case, they are insisting on impaneling citizens whose heads are in the sand. Or, those lawyers simply move for a change of venue and try to convince a judge that it’s impossible to get a fair trial here.
That’s what happened in the Michelle Dickson murder case. Del Norte Superior Court Judge Robert Weir bought the argument that pretrial publicity had tainted the jury pool in both Del Norte and Humboldt counties, so he ordered the trial of Arcata resident Josiah Miller moved to Mendocino County.
Unless the case is successfully plea-bargained, Dickson’s Crescent City family will have to travel hundreds of miles to watch the proceedings.
Now defense attorneys are asking Weir to do the same thing for three men charged in the hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Josh Lacy. The lawyers cited not only the news coverage of Lacy’s death in 2007, but the fact that memorials sprang up around Crescent City in honor of the boy who should have just graduated from Del Norte High School.
In other words, they cited what normally occurs in a small town after a local child dies tragically — especially when those responsible fled the scene and are still at large. So the community honored Josh and showed compassion for his family — does that make us unwilling to abide by the American standard of providing fair trials and assuming defendants are innocent until proven guilty?
After all, about the only thing worse than not seeing justice done in the Lacy case would be to see the wrong people convicted.
After Judge Weir granted the change of venue in the Dickson case, several well-meaning people expressed their concern to The Daily Triplicate that news coverage of other cases could result in additional venue changes. This newspaper will always endeavor to report crime news accurately. We will not wallow in it or sensationalize it. But we will also not be cowed by the potential motions of defense attorneys into withholding information from the public.
Hopefully, Judge Weir will do in the Lacy case what he didn’t do in the Dickson case, and that is at least give the local jury pool a chance. Let’s try to select a fair and impartial jury of our peers.
It’s not as if trials in all high-profile cases get moved to other counties. Consider these recent examples:
An Orange County judge denied a change of venue for a drunken-driving defendant accused of killing a Los Angeles Angels pitcher a few hours after Nick Adenhart won a game in front of tens of thousands of Major League baseball fans.
In sparsely populated Siskiyou County, a judge denied a change of venue for a defendant in the attempted murder and sexual assault of a 3-year-old Yreka girl. It’s a small-town case with plenty of coverage in the local media, but Judge Donald Langford put it this way: “I’m not convinced the defense has shown for certain that a fair and impartial trial can’t be held in Siskiyou County. It’s certainly a possibility, but I don’t see that the possibility has risen above merely possible.”
In other words, don’t automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the accused, at the expense of the victim’s family.