Opening arguments Monday in double-murder retrial in Port Townsend

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — A request to move a double-murder retrial out of Jefferson County was denied for a second time Friday, clearing the way for opening arguments to be presented Monday.

The trial, which is expected to continue until Aug. 1, is the second for Michael J. Pierce on first-degree murder charges in the killings of Pat and Janice Yarr on March 18, 2009, in a farmhouse near Lake Leland.

Pierce, 38, was convicted in 2010 and was serving a life sentence in Walla Walla State Penitentiary when the state Court of Appeals reversed the conviction July 27 after Pierce’s attorneys successfully argued that his post-arrest statements should be suppressed.

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans will begin his opening statement at 9 a.m. Monday in Superior Court at the Jefferson County Courthouse at 1820 Jefferson St.

The defense’s opening statement will be given later.

In Friday’s ruling, Jefferson County Superior Court Judge Keith Harper disagreed with defense attorneys’ opinion that knowledge about the crime would block the jury from making an impartial decision.

“We are making this more complicated than it has to be,” Harper said.

“I disagree with the defense in their assertion that jurors need to know nothing about the crime in order to make an objective ruling.

“We have jurors who have sworn under oath they can rule on the case, and we should take them at their word.”

In a 10-minute argument, defense attorney Bret Roberts said 109 people out of 177 questioned from the jury pool, or 62 percent, were excused for cause — that is, for a specified reason, such as bias or prejudice.

That high number created “evidence of presumption” among the general public, Roberts argued.

He also said the defense was not allowed to grill the prospective jurors in enough depth.

“We didn’t have an independent way to confirm their prejudice,” Roberts said.

“We weren’t able to get a good sense of whether they held a bias and how they felt about the case.

“Because of this, we don’t think that Mr. Pierce can get a fair trial, and we should move this to another jurisdiction.”

Roberts said Kitsap County would be a good venue for the trial.

As support, Roberts cited Irvin v. Dowd, a 1961 Indiana case where a change-of-venue motion to avoid local bias was denied, and a third of the jury was seated despite their admitted prejudgment of guilt.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chris Ashcraft countered Roberts’ assertion, saying Irvin v. Dowd was a “circus-like environment that made a fair trial impossible.”

Ashcraft said that while many local people knew of the case and that Pierce already had been found guilty, many others are unaware.

“Many people know about the case, but aside from the victims, it does not ignite the passions that it did four years ago during the first trial,” Ashcraft said.

In defense motions, attorney Richard Davies said excessive media coverage made the selection of a fair jury impossible, but Ashcraft argued that media coverage of the trial has been moderate.

Ashcraft said there were 95 post-trial news articles in the Peninsula Daily News and the Port Townsend-Jefferson County Leader over a four-year period, which averaged out to one story per paper per month.

Of these, 15 were “purely procedural,” 70 were written using court records as sources and were factual, and 10 were editorials, he said.

Ashcraft said 22 of the articles presented material that was favorable to Pierce as they contained information that was critical of the prosecution.

He said a series of articles immediately after the trial included quotes from family members reacting to the verdict, and these were negative with regard to Pierce.

After the ruling, Davies said he was disappointed, “but we will now go forward with the trial.”

Rosekrans said he had never seen such a thorough jury selection process and believed Pierce would get a fair trial.

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Jefferson County Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 13. 2013 6:57PM
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