No change of venue in Jefferson murder retrial

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — The retrial of Michael J. Pierce for the murders of Pat and Janice Yarr will take place in Jefferson County, Superior Court Judge Keith Harper ruled Thursday.

Harper denied a motion requesting a change of venue because of pretrial publicity.

There was no information Thursday as to whether the defense would appeal the decision.

Pierce, 37, was convicted in 2010 of the murders of the Yarrs on March 18, 2009, in their farmhouse near Lake Leland.

The state Court of Appeals on July 17 unanimously reversed Pierce's 2010 conviction — for which Pierce was serving a life sentence at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary — and sent the case back to Jefferson County for a new trial.

Attorneys for Pierce, who is scheduled May 20 to be tried for a second time, filed a change-of-venue motion March 1 that described newspaper reports as “inflammatory,” and said the publicity would make it difficult or impossible to seat an impartial jury in Jefferson County.

Pierce is now in the Jefferson County jail awaiting trial.

Harper ruled that while some of the stories written at about the time of the trial could be characterized as inflammatory, all subsequent coverage has been factual and unemotional, and should not adversely affect the objectivity of a potential jury pool.

“Since the trial [in 2010], there hasn't been a barrage of stories that creates an atmosphere for any fixed opinions about the case,” Harper said.

“The issue is whether a jury can be found that does not have fixed opinions about the case and can rule in an unbiased way.”

The 279-page change-of-venue brief contained 39 pages of arguments, with the remainder being press clippings, mostly from the Peninsula Daily News and the Port Townsend-Jefferson County Leader, in addition to other media sources.

In his ruling, Harper echoed a prosecution argument that the best way to determine whether a jury can be seated in a controversial case is to attempt to seat one.

During an April 2 court appearance, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chris Ashcraft said memories of the trial have subsided since it ended, and at least 900 new people have entered the jury pool since that time, increasing the chance of finding jurors unaffected by media coverage.

Harper agreed with this assessment.

“It isn't like 40 or 50 years ago, when everyone knew each other here,” Harper said.

“There are a whole lot of new people moving here, and the county is pretty varied.”

Superior Court Clerk Ruth Gordon intends to double the amount of jury letters in anticipation of the trial, contacting a pool of 300 people instead of the usual 150.

After Harper's ruling, neither Ashcraft nor attorney Ben Critchlow, who represented Pierce in court but is not part of the defense team, had any questions for the judge.

In court, Pierce will be represented by attorneys Richard Davies and Bret Roberts, both of whom were out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment.

Ashcraft said he did not expect the defense to appeal Harper's ruling.

“It's very hard to appeal a decision like this at this stage in the trial,” he said.

Ashcraft said a challenge to Harper's ruling at this point would be defined as an interlocutory appeal, the granting of which is unusual in Washington state.

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans, who prosecuted the original case and will do so again, said he was pleased with the ruling.

“It was a well-reasoned opinion,” Rosekrans said.

“If we didn't think this was the right venue to have a trial, we would have a responsibility to come forward,” he added.

“We'd make the motion ourselves if we didn't think this was the right place.”



Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 04. 2013 6:14PM
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