Expert: Move CHP slaying trial out of Modesto area

A jury consultant who has worked on several high-profile cases -- including the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers, Enron executives and a dog-mauling case in San Francisco -- on Wednesday said a judge should move a trial involving the killing of a highway patrolman out of Modesto.

Edward J. Bronson of Chico testified in support of a change of venue motion brought by attorneys for Columbus Allen Jr. II of Stockton, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of California Highway Patrol officer Earl Scott.

After performing a content analysis of 150 news stories and briefs in The Bee, and conducting public opinion surveys in which two-thirds of respondents said they think Allen is guilty, the retired professor was convinced Allen's trial should be moved.

"The case is burned into the psyche of the community, so that it becomes part of the collective memory," Bronson said as he testified in Stanislaus County Superior Court. "The usual fading that we might expect over time just didn't happen."

Allen, 33, of Stockton is suspected of killing Scott at about 4:40 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2006. The slain officer was found at the edge of northbound Highway 99, just south of Hammett Road near Salida, holding registration papers for a Nissan Maxima registered to Allen's wife, Ber- tera.

The highway was closed that morning and the search for the Nissan was widely discussed on morning news shows. Allen was arrested a few hours later.

Scott's funeral also prompted extensive media coverage.

Although reporting about the crime was accurate, Bronson deemed the coverage to be inflammatory, saying continual publicity can create a presumption of guilt, even though a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

More than 80 percent of the people contacted for public opinion surveys by the prosecution and defense recalled the crime more than two years after Allen was arrested and Scott was buried.

And opinions about Allen's guilt were even more alarming, according to surveys conducted by the defense in 2008. In the first survey, nearly 61 percent of people said Allen is guilty. In the second, nearly 65 percent said Allen is guilty.

Bronson's testimony is expected to continue when the hearing resumes today; an expert hired by the district attorney's office is expected as well.

Defense attorney John R. Grele asked Bronson questions about racial prejudice, noting that the slain officer was white while Allen is black.

Bronson said bias is hard to pin down, but he noted that most of the people he surveyed recalled that Allen is black. He also noted that only 3 percent of residents in Stanislaus County are black, and that Allen is from San Joaquin County, where 12 percent of residents are black.

To move the trial, Judge Hurl John- son would have to believe Allen could not get a fair trial in Modesto, because of widespread publicity that is deemed inaccurate or inflammatory. He is expected to issue a written ruling after weighing testimony from the hearing and precedent-setting cases.

Allen's trial is slated to begin Sept. 1.

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