State

Jardine: Accused shouldn't expect better odds if trial moves

Accused cop killer Columbus Allen Jr. II will get his long-delayed day — check that, weeks — in court in Sacramento, not Modesto.

But while a defendant is guaranteed the right to be judged by a fair and impartial jury of his or her peers, does it really give him a better chance for an acquittal?

I'll get to that in a moment.

Authorities arrested Allen on Feb. 17, 2006 — the same day California Highway Patrol officer Earl Scott was shot to death along Highway 99 in Salida. Allen soon was charged with the killing. Yet 3½ years later, the case still hasn't gone to trial and now the trial is moving.

The Bee detailed Allen's dismissive attitude toward defense attorneys during the case's first year, along with Allen's courtroom antics that included numerous verbal exchanges with Judge Hurl Johnson.

A cynic might even argue that Allen deftly manipulated the court to get his change of venue, because his behavior increased the publicity his case received and that was one of the grounds on which it was granted.

Johnson on Thursday reasoned that the newspaper's coverage essentially deprived Allen of the ability to receive a fair trial in Stanislaus County. Johnson also cited Sacramento's higher percentage of blacks among its population, providing a more diverse pool of potential jurors. Allen is black.


No judge wants a verdict overturned on appeal, said Ruth Jones, a criminal law professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

"Why create an appellate issue?" she said. "Change the venue."

Consequently, California, which averages only about two changes of venue per year, now has allowed two in the past month.

An Alameda County judge ruled Friday to move the trial of a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer accused of killing an unarmed 22-year-old man in an Oakland subway station on New Year's Day. That trial's destination hasn't been determined.

A change of venue guarantees only that a defendant will be judged by a different group of strangers somewhere else. The accused haven't fared well in such cases.


Consider:

• Royal Kenneth Hayes was convicted of murdering two people on the University of California at Santa Cruz campus in 1981. After the same Santa Cruz County jury deadlocked during the penalty phase, the trial was moved to Stanislaus County, where a jury here returned a death penalty verdict in 1986.



• The trial of defendants in a quadruple slaying in Salida also moved midstream from Modesto to Oakland, where two of the six defendants were convicted in 1993 after four others had been convicted here.



• Cary Stayner's murder trial moved in 2002 from Mariposa to Santa Clara, where he was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering three Yosemite tourists and a park naturalist in 1999.



Scott Peterson's trial went from Modesto to Redwood City, where he was convicted of killing his wife and unborn son, and is on death row.

• Fourteen years after the gruesome Wilseyville murders of the mid-1980s in Calaveras County, Charles Ng's trial concluded in Orange County. He was convicted of 11 murders while suspected of being involved in 14 more, and is on death row.



• Cuitlahuac Tahua "Tao" Rivera's trial went to Colusa, where he was convicted in 2007 and is on death row for the April 2004 murder of Merced police officer Stephan Gray.



• In the triple-murder trial of George Souliotes, a Modesto landlord who killed three tenants when he set a rental home on fire, the court twice imported juries from San Joaquin County. The first trial ended in a mistrial, the second in murder convictions. He is serving a life sentence.



Statewide, seven other change-of-venue homicide cases all ended with convictions, although one was for voluntary manslaughter.

The only relocated murder case in recent memory in which the defendant walked came in 1992 and included two mistrials.


Mike Blatt, a prominent Stockton developer turned sports agent and former Seattle Seahawks general manager, was the defendant in a murder-for-hire case in which his former business partner was killed. In the first, the jury deadlocked at 9-3 for conviction. The second time, jurors voted 11-1 for acquittal. The prosecution declined to try a third time.

The outcomes suggest that while defendants and their attorneys believe that somewhere else is better for trial, the juries in those places haven't been so hospitable.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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