Judge says no to venue change for Engel trial
The attempted murder trial of Fred Engel, set to start Tuesday with jury selection, will not be moved outside of Nevada City – at least, not for now.
But if it looks as though prospective jurors have been so influenced by coverage of the alleged crime in The Union that a fair and impartial jury cannot be seated, Nevada County Superior Court Judge Robert Tamietti said Friday he would reconsider a motion for a change of venue.
Tamietti, in a series of rulings made in a hearing on the case Friday, also denied a motion to postpone the trial for one month.
Defense lawyer Stephen A. Munkelt of Nevada City asked for additional time to complete a scientific survey that, he said, could show the jury pool already is tainted.
Out of 103 people contacted in a preliminary poll, 63 percent said they had heard of the case in which Nevada City resident Susan Wallace had her throat slashed and her house set afire.
Of those, 70 percent told the pollster they believed Engel was guilty, Munkelt said.
“Ignoring the (high) margin of error of the preliminary poll, this means about 50 percent of prospective jurors already think he’s probably guilty,” Munkelt said after the hearing.
Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson said more than 200 people would be interviewed Tuesday and Wednesday to seat a jury. Going by Munkelt’s poll, he said, “It looks like we’ll have … about 116 jurors who either know nothing about the case … or who have heard about it but have no opinion.
“The best way to find out is to start,” Wolfson concluded.
But “are those (people) going to represent the community?” Munkelt said later. “Eighty percent of the jury pool reads the paper at least occasionally. … What about the people who are left?”
Tamietti said his mind is not made up on the issue, but said the trial will continue as scheduled.
“I don’t have enough information to make me think we can’t panel a jury,” Tamietti said.
He added nearly every community in California is struggling with the issue of mental health, drug addition and crime. “What jurisdiction could I move this case to where meth and crime are not intertwined?” he said.
Engel is accused of attacking Wallace in her home in May 2005, and admitted to using methamphetamine when he turned himself in six hours after she was attacked. He has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.
To contact staff writer Trina Kleist, e-mail trinak@theunion .com or call 477-4231.
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