An Allen County judge is considering moving the September trial of a Fort Wayne woman charged in the death of her 2-year-old son.
At the center of the case: social media and reoccurring messages written in chalk outside the Allen County Courthouse.
Amber Garrett, 26, who is charged with two counts of felony neglect in Malakai Garrett's death in November, argues Facebook pages dedicated to her case and chalked scrawls on sidewalks pleading for her to be charged with murder will bias potential jurors.
The creators of the Facebook pages and some of the chalk messages that have shown up on days Garrett was scheduled to be in court testified Tuesday their efforts are simply to keep people informed.
“It's just freedom of speech,” said Trisha Cordell, 28. She created a #ChargeAmber Facebook page after she heard about Malakai's death.
“I have my opinion, they have theirs,” she said. “I don't think that I can tell somebody else what to think or what to do.”
Cordell and Katelyn Gustin, 26, creator of the #JusticeforMalakai Facebook group with about 10,000 members, testified Tuesday in Allen Superior Court during a hearing on Garrett's request to move the trial or bring in other jurors. Each received subpoenas for their testimony from defense attorney John Bohdan.
Gustin said she created #JusticeforMalakai “to make sure people could get all the information in one place, and (it's) a place to vent their feelings.”
The group has been renamed #Justice4abused&murderedchildren. Gustin said about 5,000 members live in Allen County.
Garrett filed a motion for change of venue in February, citing news coverage, social media posts and the chalk messages.
Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull heard arguments from Bohdan, who said he worried comments on social media and written on sidewalks might sway the feelings of jurors who could be assigned to the case.
“I don't fault folks' interest (in the case),” he said. “But again, the chief concern is the client's right to a fair trial.”
Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards and Deputy Prosecutor Patricia Pikel said information presented in court and in the venue change request fails to prove that potential jurors cannot set aside preconceived biases, a requirement to serve.
“I think the defense has not met its burden today,” Pikel said.
Gull did not say when she will rule on the request. Garrett's trial is scheduled for Sept. 11.
Garrett was arrested in January, nearly two months after Malakai was taken first to a fire station on North Clinton Street by her boyfriend at the time, Mitchell Vanryn, and then to a hospital, where he died. Doctors told investigators that Malakai had suffered injuries consistent with being struck with a closed fist, according to court documents.
Vanryn, 27, is charged with murder in the case.
The chalk messages began appearing on the grounds of the courthouse shortly after Garrett was charged with two counts of neglect of a dependent. The chalk messages included requests that she also be charged with murder and that a request for travel be denied.
A response from prosecutors to the change of venue request said chalk can be removed from the area before jurors arrive at the courthouse.
The area in front of the courthouse – along South Clinton Street, between West Main and East Berry streets – is maintained by the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.
Parks spokeswoman Natalie Eggeman said “it's fairly easy” to remove chalk from sidewalks with a powerwasher.
She said writing on the sidewalks without permission from the parks department is prohibited by a city ordinance that bars defacing property.
Jamie Duffy of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.