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Defense Urges Change of Venue for Sanchez

Serial rapist accused of killing a 20-year-old college student cannot get a fair trial in Ventura County because of negative publicity, his attorneys argue.

March 01, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for serial rapist and murder defendant Vincent Sanchez are asking a judge to move his upcoming trial to another venue, arguing that publicity has ruined his chance at receiving a fair trial in Ventura County.

The request was presented to Superior Court Judge Ken Riley on Friday and is one of several key motions to be resolved before the trial gets underway.

Sanchez, 32, is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of college student Megan Barroso in July 2001. Prosecutors allege he killed the 20-year-old Moorpark woman during a kidnapping and rape attempt, and they are seeking the death penalty.

Sanchez has pleaded guilty to raping seven women in Simi Valley between 1996 and 2001, and he has further admitted to killing Barroso. But he denies that he tried to rape her.

Attempts by defense attorneys to settle the murder case have been rejected by prosecutors, and the trial is scheduled to begin this month. But first the judge must address a defense request to move the trial to a venue where prospective jurors have not been exposed to publicity on the murder case and earlier reports related to the Simi Valley rapes.

"The negative publicity is simply horrendous," argued Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn, who spent three hours Friday citing surveys, news articles and expert testimony that he contends support the request.

Quinn argued that prospective jurors have been tainted by news coverage, dating back to 1998, of the rapes, which occurred in one of America's safest cities. The attacks sent a chill through the community and fear of the rapist prompted public officials to offer rewards and warn residents to lock their doors.

News coverage increased in July 2001 after Sanchez was arrested on suspicion of carrying out those sex assaults, and it hit a fever pitch weeks later when Sheriff Bob Brooks announced Sanchez was linked to the disappearance of Barroso.

From that point on, Quinn argued, the media interest was intense and created a bias that can best be cured by using jurors from outside Ventura County.

In August, defense attorneys and prosecutors separately polled hundreds of prospective jurors to determine their knowledge of the case. Defense lawyers say their results show 85% of those surveyed were familiar with the case, and the number was higher, 93%, for those living in Moorpark and Simi Valley.

But prosecutors say impartial jurors can be found locally.

Retired Deputy Dist. Atty. Pete Kossoris, who returned to the courtroom to take up the change-of-venue motion, told Riley that the defense survey is flawed and unreliable -- the same argument Quinn made about the prosecution's survey.

Kossoris argued that prospective jurors probably wouldn't remember details from news reports that came out 20 months ago, and wouldn't have formed fixed opinions about Sanchez's guilt or innocence. In a county of about 750,000 residents, he said, 12 unbiased people can be found to sit as jurors.

"The publicity has not prejudiced the defendant's right to a fair trial," he said. "Granted, the gravity of the offense is significant

As alternatives to moving the trial, Quinn suggested importing jurors from neighboring Santa Barbara County, which was done six years ago in another high-profile murder case following an agreement between the attorneys, or excluding jurors from Simi Valley and Moorpark.

But Kossoris argued that there is no legal precedent for those alternatives.

Riley is expected to issue his decision early next week.

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