The capital murder trial against Edwin Lara for the murder of Kaylee Sawyer will remain in Deschutes County. However, a resolution might not come about as quickly as once thought.
Deschutes County Circuit Judge A. Michael Adler ruled swiftly on the Lara defense team’s motion to change the venue, saying he did not feel the trial would have to be moved in order to find an impartial jury pool. The ruling came during a Thursday motion hearing that stretched throughout the day.
Adler opened the day by ruling against a motion to allow Lara to be unshackled during court proceedings, which was argued the day before, and ended by declining to immediately rule on a motion to postpone the Oct. 10 trial date.
The 31-year-old Lara, a former Central Oregon Community College security officer, is charged with four counts of aggravated murder for allegedly kidnapping, attempting to sexually assault and murdering Sawyer, 23, on July 24 in Bend.
Lara will remain shackled during court proceedings, but he will be allowed to have one hand uncuffed so he can write notes to his attorneys, Benjamin Kim, of Oregon City, Steve Lindsey, of Portland, and Thaddeus Betz, of Bend.
The bulk of Thursday’s hearing focused on whether the trial could remain in Deschutes County, or if any objectivity among Central Oregonians has been poisoned by extensive media coverage, as the defense has repeatedly argued.
The prosecution’s two expert witnesses — opinion researcher Adam Davis and Paul Vogel, a strategic communications consultant — attacked the notion that media coverage of the murder has been extraordinary, as oft-cited by the defense.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Adler declined to take additional time to think the matter over.
“I am prepared to issue my ruling now, because I don’t think it’s even a close call,” Adler said, adding there is no doubt 12 adequate jurors could be found. Deputy District Attorney Mary Anderson previously stated that the jury pool for the case consisted of 140,000 people.
Davis, founder of DHM Research, has done opinion research for the past 40 years. His company was hired by the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office to conduct a survey comparing potential jury pools in Deschutes and Klamath counties. The survey first used “screener” questions to make sure those being contacted fit the profile of a potential juror, such as being a citizen and at least 18. Then the interviewer asked eight questions, including if the respondents knew of Lara, where they learned about the murder of Sawyer, if they feel jurors should be impartial and could they be impartial if chosen as a juror on the case.
Overall, Davis testified, the differences between Deschutes and Klamath were minimal, and did not necessitate moving the case. The survey polled about 300 people in each county, which Davis testified yields a 5 percent margin of error, and is a good sample size.
There were certainly some differences. Sixty-eight percent of people in Deschutes County knew of the murder, compared to 25 percent in Klamath. However, in issuing his ruling, Adler stated it is not about whether people know about the case. It’s about whether they could be impartial if picked as a juror. When asked if they could be a fair juror on the case, 77 percent in Deschutes County said yes, compared with 83 percent in Klamath.
The district attorney’s office also had an analysis of media coverage on the case. Vogel, who has done communications work for more than 30 years, used Meltwater Media Software to pull in all media reports about the murder nationwide. Vogel testified that in no way was the coverage in Deschutes County overblown, extraordinary or sensational. To the contrary, he said it was “pretty good and pretty straight-forward,” and if anything he would have expected more articles.
Vogel analyzed all media reports from July 25 to Oct. 25, and found that of the roughly 200 stories published in the state during that time, only 30 percent were in Central Oregon. Of all stories on the murder nationwide during that time, only 10 percent were from Oregon, Vogel found.
In The Bulletin specifically, North Bend’s run to the Little League Baseball World Series, coverage of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover, and stories about Gov. Kate Brown and Rep. Knute Buehler all got more coverage than the Sawyer murder in the three-month sample.
On cross-examination, Betz argued that having front-page stories in The Bulletin every day following a hearing on the case should be considered “sustained coverage,” meaning readers were constantly reminded of the case.
Vogel responded that would depend on how often there were court hearings, saying if there was a front-page story once per week, that could be considered sustained, but would be “pretty low-grade.”
In the past 60 days, The Bulletin has published five news stories and two editorials in which the murder case was the focus.
The final hours of the hearing looked at the timeline for the case, and whether an Oct. 10 trial date is plausible. The defense called expert witness Jeff Ellis, who has been a defense attorney for capital cases for the past 25 years, taking on 50 capital cases in that time.
Ellis testified about American Bar Association guidelines for defending capital cases, specifically involving foreign nationals such as Lara. While Lara is a legal permanent resident in the United States, he is also a citizen of Honduras.
Ellis said the guidelines — which Oregon and the U.S. Supreme Court use as the low bar for adequate defense for capital cases — mandate that defense attorneys do extensive investigation into their client’s background before trial. This includes an investigation that goes three generations back, and looks at health and school records, the socioeconomic background of the client and if there is any family history of mental illness or brain injury, in addition to much more.
Ellis said this includes face-to-face interviews with family members from multiple generations. The goal, he said, is to allow the jury some insight into the hardships of the client’s life. While a trip to Honduras might not yield evidence to prove Lara’s innocence, it could provide important context for a jury weighing a heavy burden.
“If you fail to do that, you fail to get the meaningful information that can make the difference between a life and death sentence,” Ellis said.
An investigation like this can be very difficult, especially in a country such as Honduras, where the U.S. has established a travel advisory due to safety. Record-keeping is likely poor, and tracking down the necessary sources for interviews could be challenging, Kim, the defense attorney, argued.
Ellis testified he had never heard of a proper capital defense taking fewer than 15 months, and with a foreign national from a country like Honduras, it could take three to six years to prepare for trial.
Kim asked for an extension of a year to 18 months.
When Adler asked for her opinion, Deputy District Attorney Anderson said on its surface, she objects to the motion to continue due to Sawyer’s family seeking a quick resolution in the case. But, she conceded Kim put together a strong argument, and that Adler should consider the guidelines Ellis testified about in making his decision.
Adler opted to review the material and argument, and rule at a later, unspecified date.
In closing arguments, Kim reiterated the importance of due-diligence in a case where the state is seeking execution.
“These are not minimal issues,” Kim said. “This is essentially the heart of what may be the penalty phase of this case.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, email@example.com