With 3.5 million jurors to choose from, prosecutors in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case are confident that a fair trial can be held in Los Angeles County.
But defense attorneys, armed with a survey that shows that 8 out of 10 people think the two defendants are guilty, will argue this week that the proceedings should be moved to a county untainted by negative publicity about Ray Buckey, 28, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 60.
Such a move, called a change of venue, is based on the notion that the unfavorable publicity surrounding some criminal cases makes it impossible to find an unbiased jury. Though often requested, it seldom is granted here--neither Charles Manson nor the man accused of being the Night Stalker won changes of venue.
In fact, the district attorney's office can recall only two instances in which trials have been transferred out of the county in more than a decade.
"The reason it is such a rarity is that we are so big that it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that an unbiased jury cannot be impaneled," said Richard W. Hecht, director of the district attorney's bureau of central operations. The defense must prove that there is "a reasonable likelihood" that a defendant cannot otherwise obtain a fair trial.
"It's a tough burden," Hecht noted. "Over the years we have accumulated a history of being able to try cases where there has been widespread publicity--sometimes generated by defense attorneys themselves who go outside the courtroom and give interviews every day."
Hecht said lawyers routinely request changes of venue to protect themselves against being second-guessed later by an appellate court and made to appear incompetent.
This week, defense attorneys are expected to argue that a change of venue is necessary for the Buckeys because of the nature and extent of pretrial publicity about what at first appeared to be the largest child abuse case in U.S. history. The Buckeys face 101 counts of child molestation and conspiracy, and, if convicted, life sentences.
The defense cites the seriousness of the charges, the fact that the alleged victims are children, the case's "political overtones," and the deluge of adverse publicity that has left the case "embedded in the public consciousness," as grounds for moving the trial out of Los Angeles County.
Defense experts scheduled to begin testimony today include two Duke University professors: Robert M. Entman, who analyzed how the press has covered the case for the last three years, and John B. McConahay, who conducted a telephone survey of about 500 people in the Los Angeles area.
After reviewing several thousand pages of newspaper clippings and eight hours of television coverage, Entman concluded in a written statement filed with the court that "the early coverage of the McMartin Pre-School case was extraordinary in amount, scope, sensationalism and negativity toward the defendants," and that while "later coverage was more balanced," assembling an impartial jury is unlikely.
Entman said research shows that "the higher the level of information jurors have about the case, the more likely they are to be biased toward the prosecution and a guilty verdict" and that jurors may not even realize if or how their beliefs have been swayed by news stories.
McConahay's survey found that 9 out of 10 people believe the Buckeys are guilty. More than 96% of those queried had heard of the case. More than 97% of those with an opinion thought that Raymond Buckey is "definitely or probably guilty" and nearly 93% felt that way about his mother. More than 8 out of 10 people said they believe that Raymon1679835765children into silence, that he was part of a child pornography ring, and that the five defendants against whom charges were dropped are still guilty.
The last time a change of venue was granted in Los Angeles County was in 1973, in a case involving the shotgun slaying of Joyce Ann Huff, a 4-year-old Hawaiian Gardens girl. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Julius Leetham ordered the trial moved from Norwalk to Redwood City, in San Mateo County, because of what he called "massive saturation" publicity about the case here. The three men charged with the child's murder were convicted.
The only other change of venue prosecutors here recall was a 1969 political corruption case. City human relations commissioner and building developer Keith Smith was charged with bribing harbor officials to award his firm a $12-million contract to build the World Trade Center on Terminal Island.
In that case, an appellate court said a motion for a change of venue should not be denied simply because a county has a large population.
Smith's trial was moved to San Francisco and heard by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn. Smith was cleared of any wrongdoing, while the harbor commissioners he allegedly bribed were tried in Los Angeles County and found guilty.
Ray Arce, director of juror management services for Los Angeles County, said there are about 3.5 million "jury-eligible" residents in the county's central district, providing the largest base in the United States for any Superior Court.