Judge accepts Rays’ request for venue change in murder trial

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Dallas County District Court Judge Terry R. Rickers accepted Wednesday the request for a change of venue for the trial of Marc and Misty Ray of Perry, accused of first-degree murder in the 2017 death of their adoptive daughter, 16-year-old Sabrina Ray.

Both sets of defense attorneys — Gerald B. Feuerhelm and Jesse A. Macro Jr. representing Marc Ray and Sean P. Spellman and Roger P. Owens representing Misty Bousman Ray — argued “saturation” news reporting and ferocious social media commentary made a fair trial for the Rays impossible in Dallas County.

“Our concern is,” Spellman told the court, “there is a substantial likelihood that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had up here in Dallas County based on the allegations brought in this case against Ms. Bousman Ray and in consideration of the current climate and past climate here in Dallas County and throughout central Iowa publicly and in the media.”

To support their motion for relocating the trial, the defense attorneys offered the results of questionaires completed in May 2018 by 279 prospective jurors. More than 50 percent of the respondents agreed with the questionaire statement: “Because of the information I know about the (Sabrina Ray case), I could not be a fair and impartial juror.”

Spellman said “the saturation of media coverage and animosity to related cases here in central Iowa” make a fair trial in Dallas County impossible.

He said the similar case of Natalie Finn, the West Des Moines 16-year-old who died of starvation in 2016 while in the care of her adoptive parents, and the related cases of Carla Bousman, Sabrina’s grandmother, and Justin Ray, Sabrina’s brother, have consistently drawn public attention to the cases of Marc and Misty Ray.

“These cases to a certain degree fed off one another,” Spellman said.

He also said the extensive media coverage of the death of Sabrina Ray and particularly the social-media commentary on the events make a change of venue necessary.

“A lot of these publicly made comments have a discussion about resorting to violence toward the Rays and forms of retaliation that would certainly not include a trial by jury,” Spellman said.

“What we’re asking for the court to do here is to — it’s more of a commonsense approach than a legal approach,” Owens said. “What I’m asking for Marc Ray is for the court to kind of level the playing field.”

Responding for the prosecution were First Assistant Dallas County Attorney Jeannine R. Ritchie and Assistant Dallas County Attorney Stacy L. Ritchie, who argued against a change of venue.

“The state would assert that the defendants have failed to meet their burden to show that they cannot receive a fair and impartial trial in Dallas County,” Jeannine Ritchie told the court.

Ritchie said the defense attorneys provided a lengthy list of media reports about the Sabrina case, “but what they have failed to do is indicate that there is any prejudice that was cited in those article,” and “they have failed to indicate that there were any inaccuracies published in those news stories.”

Ritchie applied another court’s description of media reporting in a different case to the reporting by ThePerryNews.com and other media on the Rays’ case: “The court very eloquently indicated that ‘the record does not disclose, as defendant would have it, sensational reporting of a routine crime. Rather, there was routine reporting of a sensational crime.’ And that is what we have here, your honor. This is routine reporting of a crime that is very sensational due to the nature of the charges and the fact that children are involved.”

Ritchie also challenged the defendants’ claim that social media commentary in Dallas County about the death of Sabrina shows local minds are fatally prejudiced.

“It’s the state’s contention that no matter where the court goes, media coverage is going to be present,” Ritchie said, and social media “has become, of course, prolific in our current society. There is no way for the court to limit the internet from outside of Dallas County. Whether this trial is moved to the northwest quarter, northeast quarter, southwest quater or southeast quarter of the state, social media will exist, and as soon as the court’s ruling is published, if the trial is moved, that area will start lighting up with Twitter feeds and social media indications of persons in that area who potentially would be deciding the fate of the defendants.”

Judge Rickers did not take long to issue his ruling. In granting the motion for a change of venue, Rickers said he was particularly troubled by comments made by prospective jurors on their questionaires.

“Of particular concern to the court,” he said, “were the numerous comments and responses from prospective jurors that were very vitriolic and very hostile and very passionate about their preconceived disdain for the defendants in this case.”

Rickers said prejudice in the minds of local jury candidates made fairness unlikely and bias very probable.

“If half the prospective jury panel has already made up their minds and is willing to share very passionate, hostile feelings or opinions about their assessment of the case before they’ve heard any evidence whatsoever,” Rickers said, “it’s difficult for this court to see how it would be practical to try this case in Dallas County.”

He described the “saturation” of media attention on the Sabrina story and said that  “because of the pervasive nature of the coverage of this case, which has apparently caused people to determine in advance what the verdict should be in this case, I find that it is necessary to change to venue of the trial of the defendants to a location outside of centrail Iowa.”

Rickers said he would request the state court administration to find a trial location either on the western or eastern border of the state.

Rickers had to postone ruling on several other defense motions because “the statewide computer network is down,” the judge said. “I have no access to the electonic case file.”

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