Elisa Baker’s jury will not be from Catawba County, but it is still unclear where her trials will be held.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid granted a change of venue request Monday that was submitted by Elisa’s attorney, Scott Reilly, last month.
Reilly argues that pre-trial publicity in Elisa’s case makes it impossible for her to receive a fair trial here. He says Catawba County residents have been “unbelievably” saturated with prejudicial news stories, TV reports and biased commentaries that have “poisoned the minds of the community” – an argument that Kincaid deemed “correct” on Monday.
“The counsel is correct that media has been more than journalism,” Kincaid said, adding that commentaries and speculation in media coverage could make potential jurors base their decision off news reports rather than court evidence.
The state disagrees.
Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither argued Monday that news articles alone are not sufficient evidence to move the case. Citing N.C. Statute 15A-131, Gaither said it is best that the defendant be tried in the same county the crime occurred in, which is Catawba.
“The state believes the defendant can have a fair and impartial trial here,” Gaither told the judge.
The judge. however, agreed with Reilly and granted his request for the change of venue. Despite this, it is still unclear where the trial will move to.
No decision was made concerning where the trial will be held, but Kincaid directed the prosecution and the defense to present arguments on Sept. 12. That's when attorneys will try to convince the judge of their preferred trial location.
Despite granting the change of venue, Kincaid said that moving proceedings outside the county is not easy.
“It is not an easy thing to just land in someone else’s backyard and say, ‘we’re going to try a case here,’” Kincaid said. “A lot of factors have to be taken into account when you change courtrooms.”
Some of those factors include facility usage, personnel and security, Kincaid said.
The court could select a jury from another county and bring them here, a process that Kincaid asked both benches to review before they argue on Sept. 12. If the court did adopt that process, the jury could be sequestered and isolated outside of court proceedings – a process Kincaid said “is not cheap.”
Though he did not select a new county for the trial, Kincaid did give name examples of where the case could go. Dobson and Haywood counties were two locations the judge said could potentially have the right resources and space for the case. He said both locations have adequate courtroom space and are out of the media spotlight surrounding Charlotte.
Change of venue requests usually move to an adjoining prosecutorial district, which, in Catawba County, does not include Dobson and Haywood. However, Kincaid said the superior court has the ability to change it to an area outside the adjoining district.
“I don’t think you are going to go anywhere and not find jurors that haven’t heard of (the case),” he said.
Reilly said he wants the trial moved “as far away as possible,” and asked the judge that the case be moved somewhere that is “not totally saturated with the coverage.” He said he is not familiar with the counties the judge discussed.
Gaither did not comment about where he wants the case moved. He said the state does not oppose the change, but still thinks a fair and impartial jury can be found here.
Gaither and Reilly told the judge they have discussed plea offers, but have not come any type of agreement.
Reilly said he always discusses plea offers with the district attorney. Gaither did not want to comment about the plea offers.