Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho denied yesterday defense counsel Janet H. King’s motion to change the trial venue for Joseph A. Crisostomo, who is facing charges in the kidnapping and murder of bartender Emerita Romero.
Camacho said that after reviewing all the news articles provided and cited by King, he found no information that is so blatantly prejudicial, such as a televised confession or smoking gun, that jurors could not leave behind in order to give Crisostomo a fair and impartial trial.
“On the whole, the nature of the publicity about this case is what one would expect to accompany a high-profile criminal prosecution,” said the judge in a 10-page order.
King had asked the court to change the trial venue due to the case’s extensive media coverage and community sentiment. She asserted that because of the bad publicity in the case, Crisostomo won’t get a fair and impartial trial on Saipan.
During oral arguments, King clarified that Crisostomo is merely requesting that the trial proceed on Saipan but that the jury pool should be composed of Tinian and/or Rota residents.
King suggested that jurors chosen from Tinian and/or Rota could either travel to Saipan for the trial or for the trial to proceed on Tinian or Rota.
Chief prosecutor Shelli Neal and assistant attorney general Brian Flaherty represented the government in opposing the motion.
In denying the motion, Camacho pointed out that a change of venue will not necessarily ease concerns about juror prejudice caused by pretrial publicity because all three possible venues in the Commonwealth are serviced by the same news outlets, “so there is no other place to go.”
However, because pretrial publicity is likely to continue, Camacho said that Crisostomo may renew his motion at a later time if necessary.
The judge, however, set precautionary measures to protect Crisostomo’s right to a fair trial. He said any comments to the press made by the Office of the Attorney General before or during trial must comply with Rule 3.6 of the American Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
Camacho said he will create a larger jury pool by issuing three times the usual number of jury summons and that he will allow extra time for voir dire and, if necessary, will institute bench conference screening to prevent contamination of the jury pool.
Through voir dire an attorney can challenge a prospective juror “for cause” if that person says or otherwise expresses bias against the lawyer’s case.
In Crisostomo’s motion, King provided one sample news article along with several additional news articles, blog postings, and public comment excerpts.
Camacho said his review of all the articles show that the cited pretrial publicity does not call for a finding of presumed prejudice. He said he applied the factors outlined in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a trial by publicity issue.
Camacho said he did not see in his review of the articles any information that is of such a nature that it would be “imprinted indelibly in the mind of anyone who watched [or] read it.”
He noted that the news accounts do not include a confession or any other information of the “smoking-gun variety.”
On the issue that comments made online in response to blog posts and news articles show community prejudice, Camacho ruled that a presumption of prejudice may not be predicated on a small sample of online comments made anonymously or pseudonymously.
“The voices of a few individuals do not stand for the entire community,” the judge pointed out.
The trial of Crisostomo will start on Oct. 15, 2013.
FBI agents found the body of Romero at the former La Fiesta Mall in San Roque on Feb. 7, 2012, two days after she was last seen boarding a car near her house in Garapan.