Gateway murder case: Will seventh change of venue motion be the charm?
FORT MYERS — Murder trials, especially the scandalous ones, inevitably receive heavy publicity. But does media coverage ever threaten the very fairness of the judicial process? Defense attorneys for accused murderer Fred Cooper have argued a threshold has long been crossed in their case. For the past three years they’ve filed motions requesting the trial be moved out of Lee County. For the past three years, Judge Thomas S. Reese has denied each request. On Monday, when Cooper attorney Ken Garber filed his seventh motion for a change of venue, local attorneys watching the case said it represented the strongest argument yet.
Reese will hear the motion Tuesday. “I as a defense attorney would be very hesitant to try this case here in Lee County,” said Michael F. Hornung, a former prosecutor and current defense attorney. Timing and coverage, he said, were the biggest reasons for concern. Cooper, charged with the 2005 murders of Gateway couple Steven and Michelle Andrews, faces his second trial on Jan. 13, nearly three months after the first trial ended with a hung jury. With any trial, the public becomes privy to information that hasn’t previously been released, including physical evidence, witness statements and defense strategies.
“People that have read the stories and the accounts, people that have read editorials, people that have read citizens’ comments on a blog, have an opinion,” Hornung said. Finding an open-minded jury becomes more difficult as a result, he said. The three-month break between trials makes it even more difficult, he added. Media coverage for the Cooper trial has been intense. Certain facets enticed the public from the beginning: It is believed that Steven Andrews was having an affair with Fred Cooper’s girlfriend, the murders occurred in the victims’ bedroom in a gated community home, and it was the couples’ toddler who called police.
“It has all the ingredients to make good copy, and (the media) have been milking it for everything it’s worth,” said local defense attorney David A. Brener. Like Hornung, Brener said media coverage could be an issue in the upcoming trial. Garber, in his motion, called that coverage “pervasive.” He singled out coverage by the News-Press (Fort Myers), including articles, columns and video feeds. A memo filed with the motion noted reader comments on a News-Press forum that “discuss every word, emotion, proceedings outside of the juror’s presence, as well as Michelle’s past and other evidence ruled out to be presented in the trial.”
The public defender’s office did not return calls for this article.Publicity is an issue for every murder trial, Brener said. Yet media, especially print media, has changed significantly in recent years with the advent of live-blogs, streaming video and reader comments. “The difference here is there was blow by blow coverage of what happened in the trial,” he said. Cindy McCurry-Ross, senior managing editor at the News-Press, said an expanded “toolbox” has indeed allowed the newspaper to approach different audiences than in the past. “Some like to check the Web site all day long, some like summary stories at the end of the day, some want the ability to have the trial available at their office as they go about their daily business so they can catch the big moments,” she said.
She said she’s never heard a discussion within the newspaper of potential jury prejudice. The public, she emphasized, has been hungry for coverage. “I think we recognized early on when this case happened that the interest was off the chart,” she said. Yet, from an attorney’s point of view, evidence is tipping toward moving the trial, both Hornung and Brener agree. A move could take the case to Sarasota or West Palm Beach, Hornung said, and it could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 a day extra. The motion might still be denied, both attorneys said, so Reese can test jurors firsthand in January, both attorneys agree.
“Let’s call 50 to 75 people and see if we can seat a jury out of that” is how Hornung described the reasoning. “If we can’t, then let’s make the decision at that point in time to move the case.”
Attorneys for Fred Cooper file motion to move trial outside of Lee. Attorneys for murder suspect Fred Cooper filed a motion to move the January trial outside of Lee County, the seventh such request since Cooper was indicted three years ago. The motion, which was filed on Monday and signed by Public Defender Kathleen Smith and Cooper’s lead attorney, Kenneth Garber, marks the first request since an October trial ended in a hung jury.
A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Like the previous six, the request claims “pervasive publicity” could bias potential jurors. The motion makes specific references of media coverage of the first trial, including resulting articles, columns and a live-blog run by The News-Press (Fort Myers).With a constantly updated Web site, the motion stated, “anyone who wished to could view the trial on their personal or office computers.” Lee County Judge Thomas S. Reese has denied six prior motions for a change of venue.
Prosecutors accuse Cooper of killing Gateway couple Steven and Michelle Andrews in December 2005 when his girlfriend had a relationship with Steven Andrews. He faces two counts of first-degree murder a count for burglary.