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Yanez defense asks that Castile shooting case be moved: Now what?

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Officer Jeronimo Yanez
Booking photo for St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez
Ramsey County Sheriff's Office

 Updated: 10:44 a.m. | Posted: 10:00 a.m. 

Attorneys for a St. Anthony police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile, 32, during a traffic stop last summer have requested that the trial be moved out of Ramsey County.  

Jeronimo Yanez faces  second-degree manslaughter charges in Castile's July 6 death. Yanez, who also faces two felony firearms charges for firing his gun into the car where Castile's girlfriend and her young daughter were sitting, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Yanez's attorneys argue in the filing that the case has become an "omnipresent spectacle." 

"The news stories were, in our reading, slanted against him, written and voiced on the air with nary a mention of due process, the presumption of innocence, the importance of a trial, the jury, or of what the defense will be," according to the filing.

Yanez's attorneys also cite comments on news sites that were critical of Yanez, as well as protests that occurred following Castile's death. It also argues that statements about the case from Gov. Mark Dayton, President Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison suggested Yanez is guilty.  

The attorneys argued that the case be moved away from the governor's home, prominent news outlets and the site of a memorial for Castile in Falcon Heights. They suggest that it be moved elsewhere in Minnesota to Duluth, Hastings, St. Cloud or Brainerd. 

In  other documents filed Tuesday in Ramsey County District Court, Yanez's lawyers requested that Judge William Leary III dismiss the manslaughter charge against him. Defense attorneys filed a similar motion in December, requesting that all charges against Yanez be dropped, but Leary denied the request last month.

The defense has also filed a motion to suppress the statements Yanez made in an interview with state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents the day after the shooting. They argue that it doesn't reflect Yanez's earlier statements or the fact that he was mentally and physically exhausted during the interview. 

Prosecutors have until March 28 to respond to the motions.  The trial date is set for May 30, with jury questioning scheduled to begin the next day. 

What's a change of venue? 

In Minnesota, a trial can be moved to another county if a judge deems that the defendant isn't likely to receive a fair trial in the county where the case was filed.

Although it's more common for defense attorneys to ask for a change of venue, prosecutors can also make the request. A judge rules on whether a case meets the criteria for a change of venue. In some cases, it's the judge who takes action to move the case if they see evidence that jurors have already pre-judged the defendant

A change of venue most often means that a trial will take place at a new location — in Minnesota, that means a different county than the one in which the case was filed — and jurors will be chosen from among residents of that new county. The judge and attorneys on both sides remain the same.

When is a change of venue granted? 

There are a handful of reasons why a judge might grant a change of venue:

• If the defendant can't get a fair trial in the county; 
• For the convenience of lawyers and witnesses; and
• If there's been publicity in the case that has made a fair trial unlikely.

According to both the state and federal constitutions, a defendant has the right to a fair trial — a trial in which members of a jury haven't already made their minds up about the defendant's guilt or innocence. 

In trials in which a change of venue request has been granted, attorneys have typically based their arguments on the impact that publicity has had on the public's perception of the case, said Minneapolis attorney Peter Martin.

"The Constitution guarantees someone the right to an impartial jury," said Martin, who is not affiliated with the Yanez case. "That's what we're looking at: We're trying to have a panel of people who have not been swayed by prejudice or emotion that's been stirred up in the media." 

Cases are filed in the county where an incident happened. The case against Jeronimo Yanez was filed in Ramsey County because it happened in Falcon Heights, Minn.

The lawyers arguing for the motion aren't required to persuade the judge that media attention or publicity have actually prejudiced jurors in the area, but they do have to show that it's likely to have.

"They don't even have to show an actual prejudice," Martin said, "just a reasonable likelihood that will exist." 

What does a judge consider in a change of venue request?

The judge will consider testimony, media reports and other documents to determine whether it's likely that jurors in the county where the case was filed already have pre-judged the defendant. 

Standard media coverage of a case hasn't typically justified moving the trial, Martin said. When judges have approved the request, it's often been because influential figures in the community or people in positions of authority have made comments that convinced the pool of people from which the jury will be selected that the defendant is guilty before the trial has even started.

"Just plain media coverage, that's normally not enough," Martin said.

In some cases, the party making the motion conducts a survey of public opinion on the case, although it doesn't appear that a survey has been conducted in this case. National Jury Project Midwest President Diane Wiley, who also is not affiliated with the Yanez case, has conducted dozens of change-of-venue surveys during her career. 

"You ask people: Have they heard or read about the case? Have they talked to other people about the case? What do they know about the case? What do they think about the case?" Wiley said. 

A survey would be used to demonstrate that there's been a strong community reaction to a case that would cause prospective jurors to possibly "pre-judge" a defendant, Wiley said. 

"The reason we ask for changes of venue in certain cases is we feel like we've hit a threshold where everybody's been tainted, pretty much, or that so many people have been tainted that there's an atmosphere of hostility toward the defendant," Wiley said. 

That's a problem, she said, because jurors are "supposed to be making their decision based on the evidence they heard in the courtroom, and only in the courtroom."

 How often is a request to move a case granted? 

Change of venue requests aren't uncommon, but they aren't often granted. According to available state court records, only a handful of criminal cases have been moved  in Minnesota since 2010. All those cases originated in more sparsely populated counties outside the Metropolitan area.

When these motions are granted, it is typically in cases originating in sparsely populated areas. That's partly because people in less-populous counties have a higher likelihood of being directly affected by a crime, but also because it's more likely that they get their news about a crime from talking to people close to it.   

"It's unusual for cases to be moved, and it's particularly unusual for cases to be moved outside a metropolitan area, because, in general, you have a better chance of having more diverse opinions in a metropolitan area," Wiley said. 

What happens if a judge grants the change of venue?

If a judge concludes that, in order for a defendant to get a fair trial, his or her case must be moved to another county with another jury pool, all the proceedings of the court case happen in the new county. The judge is responsible for deciding where to move the case, although the party making the motion can propose locations. 

All court records from the case will be transferred to the new court. If the defendant is in custody, the court may order that he or she be transferred to the custody of the sheriff in the county now handling the case. 

Typically, the judge and attorneys in the case remain the same. Moving the trial can also be a headache for judges and attorneys, because they'll have to travel to the courthouse where it's been moved for the trial.  

All costs associated with the prosecution and trial are paid by the county where the crime was committed.