Judge: Chasse Trial May Move Out of Portland Due to Media Coverage

From the Willamette Week, October 18, 2009

A federal judge warned in court today he may move the civil trial over the death of James Chasse Jr. out of Portland because heavy media coverage may have poisoned the pool of jurors.

“We’re going to have a heck of a time finding a jury in this case that has not read information or come to some opinion based on information that may or may not be relevant,” said U.S. District Court Judge Garr King. “Every time I see an article about this case, it adds to the possibility that we will have to move.”

King denied a motion by Tom Steenson, the attorney for Chasse’s family, that would have forced the city to turn over records of the cops’ internal investigation into Chasse’s 2006 death in police custody. King said he feared making the documents public would lead to more news stories.

“As you know, I’m very concerned about trying this case in the newspapers at this time,” King said.

Steenson claimed he needs the documents in order to counter statements the city made when Police Chief Rosie Sizer announced last month that the officers’ use of force on Chasse did not violate police policy.

Steenson claimed the city’s statements violated a protective order preventing release of information. That order was granted by U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Hubel at the city’s request.

“The city thinks it’s OK to violate Judge Hubel’s order and release cherry-picked pieces of information,” Steenson said. “Why do they get a one-way street, when the internal record tells a very different story than the information they’re releasing?”

King noted that Steenson had not asked for sanctions against the city for allegedly violating the protective order. He was simply denying Steenson’s request to release the Internal Affairs records.

King said the case is “well on the road” to a change in venue, adding that he understands the city will make a request to change location of the trial. Deputy City Attorney Jim Rice agreed, saying the city is looking into that possibility.

As for City Commissioner Randy Leonard’s public statement last week that Chasse’s death was “completely unjustifiable and inexcusable,” King asked Rice what effect such comments from an elected official may have on the city’s case.

Rice didn’t directly answer King’s question.

“I have always urged everyone not to make public comments in this case,” Rice said. “I have urged them to try this case in court.”