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Criminal Nuggets

Sep 22, 2014

A change of venue due to pretrial publicity case is discussed in Podcast Episode 013 of the Criminal Nuggets Podcast. People v. Sheley, is the case that is discussed. It demonstrates, that a change of venue is hard to win in court.


[The Case]


As far as public shock and outrage go, the case of People v. Sheley had it all. The defendant went on a crime and murder spree in the summer of 2008. Ultimately, he was charged with one of the murders.


In that case, he stole the victim’s truck, beat him to death, then drove the truck Missouri. In Missouri he killed multiple people including a child. Eventually, he drives back to Illinois, where he kills two more people.


Eventually,  Defendant is arrested and prosecuted for one of the Illinois murders.


[Motion for Change of Venue]


The defense attorney filed a motion for change of venue. He commissioned polls showing the over 60% of the community was outraged and believed Defendant to be guilty.


This motion was filed a year into the case. The actual trial was still two more years away.


[The Law on Pretrial Publicity]


The Constitution provides that:


“A defendant is entitled to a trial by an impartial jury.”


U.S. Const., amend. VI; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I § 8.


Case law tells us that an impartial jury is

“a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it.”  


People v. Kirchner, 194 Ill. 2d 502, 528-29 (2000).


Additionally, there is no requirement that jurors be ignorant of the facts and exposure to pretrial publicity alone will not demonstrate improper prejudice. Yet, a juror must be able to set aside his opinions and decide the case solely on the evidence presented in court.


A potential juror should be believed when she states in open court that she is able to be impartial.


Sample Motion or Best Practices for Motion for Change of Venue Due to Pretrial Publicity


[Provide sample motion]


[In Practice Hard to Win]


In reality, it is often difficult to win a motion to change venue due to pretrial publicity. The reason, is that the process of picking a jury, itself, can be remedy to ensuring that twelve impartial jury members are chosen.


Trial courts will always have balance prejudicial pretrial publicity with two pretty overwhelming factors.

  1. There will always be a strong public interest that a notorous perpetrator is brouht to justice in the community where the crimes took place.

  1. Money. It will always be more expensive to try a defendant in a different location than the home jurisdiction.


Given these two factors, and others, combined with a fair voir dire process means a motion for change of venue due to pretrial publicity may rarely be won.


Voir dire is the remedy.


The task then of any jury selection process is pinpoint those circumstances where the public has been so inflamed from pervasive pretrial publicity that a juror can not remain impartial, regardless of their sincere claims to be able to.


[How to Conduct Voir Dire When Pretrial Publicity Was Extensive]


The trial court in People v. Sheley denied the defense motion for change of venue due to pretrial publicity, in part, because the court felt the voir dire process resulted in an impartial jury.


So lets look at some of the elements of the voir dire process used by the court.


Voir Dire Elements -


Unlimited time to question allowed

Extensive questioning permitted

Venir members separated during questioning (questioned individually)

Exact prior knowledge of the case deeply probed


The court felt that when these methods were employed, a pretty fair jury was put together.


I use to be quite the skeptic. I didn’t think that a jury could be trusted to remain impartial despite what they said in court. However, the trial in this case occurred three years after the murders. It does seem quite possible, that tempers had cooled down enough to allow for a fair jury to be assembled.


Here is a sample motion in limine that can be used to help ensure the court uses these special voir dire procedures.


[provide sample MIL]