Expert cites flawed studies, rejects moving murder trial

A prosecutor's expert Friday refuted the defense's argument that the trial of a Stockton man accused of killing a California Highway Patrol officer should be moved out of Modesto.

Ebbe Ebbesen, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, has testified dozens of times against venue change motions, including in the Scott Peterson case.

Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney Alan Cassidy called Ebbesen to testify Friday during a hearing on a change of venue motion brought by John R. Grele, the lawyer for Columbus Allen Jr. II.

Ebbesen said research has shown that studies finding that pretrial publicity taints the jury pool are flawed.

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

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 when he and his wife went to the Stockton Police Department to report the car had been stolen.

Scott's funeral prompted extensive media coverage.

Many studies of the effect of pretrial publicity involve a mock trial and use university students, half of whom are given case-related material to read before considering a case, Ebbeson said.

"Evidence" is manipulated so that 50 percent of participants who don't read anything would be likely to find the defendant guilty and the other half would be likely to acquit, he said.

Even researchers in such studies question whether they can be "generalized" to real cases, Ebbeson said.

Among other problems, the studies give participants the same material to read.

"In the real world, jurors self-expose to a variety of material," Ebbeson said. Some read a few articles; some watch television news reports; some examine everything available.

Ebbesen said one study of a first-degree murder case found no effect on the outcome by pretrial publicity. The only difference was in sentencing: If there was no publicity, the defendant was likely to get a lighter sentence than if there were one or more news stories.

To move the trial, Judge Hurl Johnson would have to find that Allen cannot get a fair trial in Modesto. Testimony will continue next week, when Johnson could make a ruling.

Allen's trial is slated for Sept. 1.

Bee city editor Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.

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