Biased jury claims rarely convince judges to change venue
EAGAN, Minn. — Attorneys seeking a change of venue over concerns of biased jurors may figure it doesn’t hurt to ask. But it rarely helps. In fact, according to data from Thomson Reuters Westlaw, the leading legal research service, change of venue is seldom granted.
Recently, attorneys for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sought to have his trial moved, citing the tremendous amount of pre-trial publicity surrounding his case. However, that motion was denied by the judge. Other high-profile defendants in federal criminal court, such as former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, also were unable to obtain change of venue.
A motion for change of venue can be filed, by either side, for a number of reasons. Judges often move trials, but Westlaw data shows that prejudice, or pretrial publicity, is seldom one of the reasons why.
Judges may grant a motion, for example, if one of the parties has a medical condition that makes traveling to a distant court difficult. Sometimes cases are transferred from juvenile to adult court. Other cases are relocated simply because they were inadvertently filed in the wrong jurisdiction.
But motions based on claims of pretrial publicity face an uphill battle.
Opposing counsel may argue that moving a trial would mean travel hardships for witnesses, victims and attorneys. Judges often assert that voir dire, the jury screening process, is more effective than changing venue for ensuring an unbiased jury.
“Attorneys who bring this type of motion may wish to review the judges’ past orders granting or denying change of venue,” explains Westlaw Reference Attorney Angela Haukebo. “These orders can help an attorney determine which arguments were best received or, at the least, considered by the judge that is about to hear the motion.”
According to Westlaw data, about 200 change of venue motions have been filed in federal district criminal court cases since 2012. Of these, approximately 60 motions were granted. But only one may have been due to potential jury prejudice.
Even in that case, it can only be presumed that it was granted for reasons of pre-trial publicity, because discussions concerning it were sealed by the court.
Meanwhile, a motion is pending in the trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, scheduled to begin July 13 in southern West Virginia. He was indicted on federal criminal charges related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 people. A motion has been filed to move the trial because of pre-trial publicity, but the federal judge won’t decide whether to grant the motion until potential jurors are questioned, a process expected to be completed just before the trial begins.
One of the most notable change of venue requests previously granted in a federal criminal court involved Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997. After winning a venue change from Oklahoma, he was convicted in Denver and executed in 2001.