Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Johnson double murder trial moved to Boise

Blaine County jury cannot be seated

Express Staff Writer

"The presumption of innocence is gone in this community."

—Barry Wood, 5th District judge

Blaine County will load up a judicial road show next month and head to Boise to try its case against Sarah M. Johnson, who is accused of killing her parents in a Bellevue shooting in September 2003.

Citing a biased jury pool in Blaine County, 5th District Judge Barry Wood on Friday morning ruled to move the trial to Ada County.

"After reading (jury questionnaires), the court is left with an abiding conviction the trial should be moved from this county for the selection of a jury," Wood said, according to court minutes. "The presumption of innocence is gone in this community."

The trial had been scheduled to begin Feb. 1 in 5th District Court in Hailey. Last month, prospective jurors were summoned to answer written questions pertaining to the case. About 350 Blaine County residents filled out questionnaires.

Of those, approximately 70 percent would not be interviewed as prospective jurors, Wood said. About 15 percent could be interviewed and another 15 percent fall into a "maybe" category.

Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas objected to the relocation and said a jury should be empanelled in Boise and brought to Blaine County.

"For 14 months, the state has prepared to present this case at the courthouse in Blaine County," he said.

But Wood did not waiver.

On Monday, Jan. 17, the judge also denied a motion from prosecuting attorneys to bump the start date back a few weeks to allow more time to make lodging and office arrangements for attorneys and witnesses in Boise.

In his Friday, Jan. 7, order, Wood wrote that after reading the questionnaires from prospective jurors in Blaine County, it became apparent "that a fair trial can not be had here."

Jury selection will begin Tuesday, Feb. 1. Arguments are scheduled to begin Monday Feb. 7. In his order, Wood wrote that the Ada County jury commissioner has already summoned a panel of 125 prospective jurors. Of those 18 will be chosen for a jury of 12 and six alternates.

The decision Friday to relocate the trial was unexpected. According to court minutes, it came about when defense attorney Bob Pangburn made a sudden oral motion.

"It is clear now that a Blaine County jury cannot be seated," he said, according to court minutes.

Thomas said his office had already purchased plane tickets and rented homes in Hailey for witnesses to stay during the trial. He said that his office would have to issue new summons for approximately 120 witnesses.

Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann said she could not accurately determine how much the move to Ada County would cost the county, but she said the county has spent $478,000 so far and has another $600,000 ready to go.

But as for the new trial location, numbers were elusive. Reimann was working to secure office space and accommodations Tuesday afternoon when she was contacted.

"Right now I just don't have numbers for you," Reimann said. "I really don't."

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