Will a murder case be moved out of Reno County?
That’s a question that’s still lingering in the case of 50-year-old Hutchinson resident Billy Joe Craig Jr., who is charged in the June 2011 shooting death of Jennifer Heckel.
Craig’s attorneys have argued he can’t get a fair trial here, due to extensive pretrial publicity from Hutchinson and Wichita media outlets. Reno County District Judge Tim Chambers has withheld his ruling on the defense’s request for a change of venue, pending the results of a telephone survey of county residents.
Well, the results are in. The survey, conducted through Pittsburg State University professors Shirley Drew and Troy Comeau, indicates more than 80 percent of the local residents surveyed say they believe Craig is guilty. About 91 percent of those surveyed are aware of the case, and 62 percent identified the case without being prompted.
“Looking at the data it would be safe to conclude that the prosecution holds a significant advantage in that his/her beliefs would be consistent with the existing internal attitudes and beliefs of potential jurors,” the professors stated in their findings.
But is the data enough to warrant a change of venue? When a similar study was conducted in the Barton County capital murder case against Adam Longoria, the majority of residents surveyed there indicated they believed Longoria was guilty. The judge, however, opted to keep the case in Great Bend.
And another question: When was the last time a criminal case has been moved out of Reno County? If you know the answer, I’m all ears.
Judge Chambers said he couldn’t recall any criminal cases being moved out of Reno County since he’s been around, or at least since 1978.
So I called retired Reno County District Judge Richard Rome today. He, too, couldn’t recall a criminal case ever being moved out of the county since at least 1961, when he started serving as county attorney.
Rome did preside over a Reno County civil case he granted a change of venue for: the ONEOK civil suit stemming from the 2001 gas explosions in Hutchinson. He sided with claims by ONEOK that 73 percent of the respondents to a jury questionnaire either owned land in the county or were related to landowners, thus barring them from jury service.
-Darcy Gray, Kansas Crime and Punishment