Mistrial declared in Jefferson murder retrial; venue to move
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Jefferson County Superior Court Judge Keith Harper declared a mistrial in the Michael J. Pierce double murder case Monday in Port Townsend.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — The judge in the murder retrial of Michael J. Pierce declared a mistrial Monday after recommendations by both the prosecution and defense that a change of venue is needed for a fair trial.

“It is with extreme reluctance that I do this,” said Jefferson County Superior Court Judge Keith Harper.

“But given the circumstances, I have no choice but to grant this request.”

Harper said he did not regret his previous venue-change denials “because those decisions were made for all the right reasons.”

“From the beginning, we have recommended that the matter be tried in another county,” said defense attorney Richard Davies, who is representing Pierce a second time and who filed two venue-change motions at each trial.

“We look forward to trying the case before an impartial jury in a new venue, and Kitsap is good because of the size of the jury pool and the lack of media coverage.”

Pierce, 38, is accused of killing Pat and Janice Yarr of Quilcene and setting their house afire to hide the deaths March 18, 2009.

A Jefferson County jury convicted Pierce in 2010 of two counts of first-degree murder, and Pierce was serving a life sentence in Walla Walla State Penitentiary when the state Court of Appeals reversed the conviction on a technicality last July 27.

Last week's discontinued retrial had taken five days of jury selection, whittling down 300 potential jurors into a 16-member panel, including alternates, then three days of testimony that included 18 witnesses.

Then a juror disclosed last Thursday that she might have witnessed Pierce walking along the side of the road the night of the killings, although she was unsure when that occurred.

The juror, Laura Meynberg of Port Townsend, was dismissed from the jury.

Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans said at the time that he would explore the possibility of calling Meynberg as a witness.

Rosekrans' statement was a factor in ending the trial, Harper said, because to have Meynberg testify in front of a jury in which she once was a member was unacceptable to him.

The attorneys for the next trial are expected to be the same as the last two, but there are some variables.

The case could either be heard by a local judge, or Harper could commute to the new trial, with a substitute judge hearing his cases in his absence.

A third option, with a jury being selected in another location and bused to Jefferson County for the trial, is unlikely, Harper said.

Rosekrans said the next trial probably will begin in the same way as the last two, with testimony by the Yarrs' two daughters, Michelle Ham and Patricia Waters.

“We had already discussed all the potential scenarios with the family, although we didn't take this one into account,” Rosekrans said.

“They are all in agreement; they want it to be done correctly.”

Rosekrans said that getting a fair trial means the inclusion of all credible witnesses, of which Meynberg is one.

He said that her initial inability to recall details, such as when she saw a man walking by the side of the road, will not affect her credibility.

“You deal with this in the same way that you treat a child who is a sexual assault victim,” Rosekrans said.

“They may not remember the date, but you ask them who their teacher was at the time or whether it was near a birthday, and you can narrow things down.”

Rosekrans said the prosecution already had determined that the recollection is in the same time frame as the killings, as they occurred shortly after Meynberg returned to work in March 2009.

Court Administrator Michelle Lorand said she is tallying an estimate of how much the trial has cost so far, which includes the jury selection process and witness accommodation, but did not have an accurate figure.

She said the county would pick up the cost of jury selection for the next trial as well as travel expenses if an out-of-town judge hears Harper's cases should he decide to preside over the retrial.

After Monday's hearing Pierce was taken to the Jefferson County Jail in Port Hadlock, where he will remain until the beginning of the new trial.

Pierce has waived his right to a speedy trial up to June 1, 2014, he said in court.

A status hearing on the trial is scheduled in chambers, 1820 Washington St., at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 9, at which time the next steps will be determined.

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

Last modified: July 22. 2013 6:12PM
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