One of the cornerstones of American justice is a defendant's right to a fair trial, including the right to be judged by impartial jury. But it has always been a challenge to find jurors who haven't read or heard so much about a high-profile case that they've already formed an opinion.
When a court determines widespread “bias or prejudice” against a defendant, the judge is allowed to order a change of venue – moving the trial to another location – or ask for jurors to be brought in from another county where residents aren't as likely to be familiar with the case.
Such a jury arrangement will almost certainly be required for the February trial of John D. Miller, charged with sexually assaulting and murdering 8-year-old April Tinsley. Local interest in that three-decades-old tragedy is overwhelming, and Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck has indicated he will look favorably on a defense request for a non-local panel.
And as The Journal Gazette's Matthew LeBlanc reported Sunday, the county is already arranging to have at least two other juries “imported.”
Accused of killing four people, including his unborn child, Marcus Dansby is scheduled to go to trial in April, and the jurors, who will be selected in Marion County, may have to be put up in Fort Wayne for a month. Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull agreed with Dansby's attorneys that public hostility and “inflammatory and sensational” media coverage made such arrangements necessary.
In the case of Amber Garrett, accused of felony neglect in the death of her 2-year-old son, Malakai, Gull initially rejected a request for a change of site or jury. But last month, The Journal Gazette and WANE-TV presented stories on Malakai's 2017 death based on an Indiana Department of Child Services report that had been released to them. The stories contained disturbing details about the events leading up to Malakai's death, in which the little boy's caregiver, Mitchell Vanryn, has been charged with murder. On Nov. 2, calling the release of some aspects of the report “inappropriate,” Gull reversed her earlier ruling and ordered an out-of-county jury for Garrett's trial.
The challenges Allen County could be facing with these three court proceedings are unusual; it's been 16 years since a jury was brought in from another county. But the cases could put serious crimps in the county's budget – at least $282,500 may be needed for jury expenses during Dansby's trial alone. Can something be done to make such costly proceedings less likely in the future?
The killing of a child always generates strong emotions. That, of course, is a measure of a decent and caring community. It is also a challenge the courts have to wrestle with.
Traditional news outlets have grown ever more cautious about how they report criminal cases. But a child's death demands fair but intense media coverage. We believe questions about how Child Services has handled other child-abuse cases that have ended in fatalities make it especially important that we seek records such as those we published in connection with Malakai's case. Indiana law mandates the release of information in child-fatality investigations, and The Journal Gazette felt the community had a right to know those details. Does that law conflict with aspects of the federal privacy law Judge Gull referred to? If so, adjustments may need to be made to the state's law.
Of course, there is also the wild card of social media, where fairness is not always the watchword. That is a new factor judges must weigh, along with this fact of life in the digital age: News coverage and social media commentary don't stop at the county border or always even within the region.