A change of venue due to pretrial publicity case is discussed in 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.
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 to 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 that 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 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.
This is the applicable law at play when a motion for change in venue due to pretrial publicity is filed.
Sample Motion for Change of Venue Due to Pretrial Publicity
To see a sample motion, click below and provide your email address. Providing your email means you’ll start receiving Illinois case law updates. You’ll receive a sample motion and a sample motion in limine that can be used to ensure the trial court uses special procedures during jury selection.
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 the remedy to ensuring that twelve impartial jury members are chosen.
Trial courts will always have to balance prejudicial pretrial publicity with two pretty overwhelming factors.
- There will always be a strong public interest that a notorious perpetrator is brought to justice in the community where the crimes took place.
- 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 to pinpoint those circumstances where the public has been so inflamed from pervasive pretrial publicity that a juror cannot remain impartial, regardless of their sincere claims in court to be able.
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 itself resulted in an impartial jury.
So let’s 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.
I created a sample motion in limine that can be used to help ensure the court uses these special voir dire procedures. It is a part of the resources compiled for attorneys seeking information on changes in venue of a criminal case.
For more information on Illinois trial procedures check out this resource page.