State

Change of venue in CHP slaying trial

Columbus Allen Jr. II will not stand trial before a Stanislaus County jury in the murder of a California Highway Patrol officer, a judge ruled Monday.

It's the first Modesto trial to receive a change of venue since the Scott Peterson case in 2004, and one of only a handful of Stanislaus County cases to use an out-of-town jury in the past three decades.

"In this case, there is evidence of more than mere awareness of behalf of the public," Judge Hurl Johnson wrote in his decision. "The gravity of the crime, the status of the victim, the content of the publicity and the extent of the publicity exceeds anything this court has seen in the community other than the Peterson case."

Johnson will have two choices: Move the trial to another county or bring in an out-of-county jury.

Allen's defense attorney, John R. Grele of San Francisco, could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said changing the site of a trial creates a host of logistical problems, including transporting witnesses and moving attorneys for the length of the trial.

"We would have liked for the trial to remain here," Shipley said. "However, we certainly respect the judge's ruling."

Allen, 33, of Stockton is charged with fatally shooting CHP officer Earl Scott 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, Bertera.

Allen and his wife showed up at the Stockton Police Department hours after Scott's death to report that their car had been stolen. A description of their sedan was widely circulated that morning in news reports about the officer's shooting and closure of the highway.

Scott's funeral also prompted extensive media coverage.

Allen's trial date is set for Jan. 12. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The Peterson trial was moved to Redwood City in San Mateo County. But in 1998, Judge Hugh Rose III imported a jury from San Joaquin County for the triple-murder trial of landlord George Souliotes.

The court has contacted the Administrative Office of the Courts, the state court administrative body, Stanislaus County Superior Court Executive Officer Mike Tozzi said. That office assists in determining locations for a trial based on available space, personnel and other factors.

After weighing the administrative office's options and getting prosecution and defense input, Johnson will hold a hearing on where the trial will take place.

A jury consultant who worked on several high- profile cases -- including the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers, Enron executives and a dog-mauling case in San Francisco -- testified in favor of a change of venue for the defense.

Edward J. Bronson of Chico performed an analysis of 150 news stories and briefs in The Bee and conducted surveys in which two-thirds of respondents said they think Allen is guilty.

"The case is burned into the psyche of the community, so that it becomes part of the collective memory," Bronson said as he testified July 22. "The usual fading that we might expect over time just didn't happen."

Johnson said the survey results, which showed more than 80 percent of respondents remembered the crime more than two years after Allen was arrested and Scott was buried, were "significant."

"The passage of time in this case has not shown a reduction in news articles or public recognition," Johnson wrote.

The prosecution brought Ebbe Ebbesen, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, to testify against a change of venue.

Both sides will be back in court Sept. 9 for a defense motion to suppress evidence that includes searches of Allen's car and house.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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