In a highly unusual move, the City of Portland has asked a federal judge to move the trial involving the death of James P. Chasse Jr. out of state, saying potential jurors in Portland and the Willamette Valley have been tainted by “inflammatory and pervasive media coverage.”
The defendants contend that Eugene would be the only alternative trial site in Oregon, because it’s the only other federal district court in Oregon, aside from Portland, that is technologically capable of allowing witnesses to testify remotely from Portland via video.
Yet deputy city attorney James Rice argues that Eugene would not be a neutral site considering what he described as the “statewide distribution of the Oregonian newspaper and Eugene’s geographical proximity to Portland.”
“This means that Eugene has been tainted by the same pervasive, prejudicial publicity that has saturated Portland for the last three years,” Rice wrote in a 16-page legal motion filed in U.S. District Court.
“Consequently, this case presents the unique situation where defendants’ right to a jury trial necessitates a change of venue outside of the state of Oregon.”
The city is seeking oral arguments before Judge Garr M. King on its change of venue request. Chasse’s attorney has time to file a response. A trial has been set for June 1.
Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006. An autpsy by the state medical examiner showed he died of broad-based blunt force trauma to the chest. Police say they saw him acting oddly, and possibly urinating in the street in the Pearl District and when they approached, he ran. Police chased Chasse, knocked him to the ground and struggled to take him into custody.
Paramedics called to the scene said Chasse’s vital signs were normal, but jail medical staff refused to book him. Chasse died as he was being transported by patrol car to a hospital.
The federal lawsuit contends police used excessive force and police and paramedics failed to provide adequate or proper medical care to Chasse.
The motion for a change of venue include defendants Chief Rosie Sizer, former Mayor Tom Potter, Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice.
Rice writes that while a change of venue to Washington or Idaho likely would inconvenience the parties to the lawsuit and witnesses and expects the plaintiffs to complain, he urges the federal judge to put the “interest of justice” above those inconveniences.
“This unrelenting judgemental coverage of Chasse’s death in the media over the last 3 years has inflamed the community against the police and tainted the potential jury pool,” Rice wrote. “The city can’t get a fair and impartial jury anywhere in Oregon that has the capability to handle this trial.”
Further, Rice argues that Chasse’s family attorney, Tom Steenson, chose to play a high-profile role to elicit sympathy for his clients and blames him for creating a “media climate” that makes it impossible for the city to get a fair, impartial trial.
“To a large extent, plaintiff’s attorney has created this situation,” Rice wrote.
Rice submitted to the court excerpts of print stories, editorials and letters to the editor from The Mercury, Portland Tribune and the Oregonian, as well as online comments and TV coverage, and a DVD of a teaser to a movie being filmed about Chasse called “Alien Boy.”
He wrote that printed opinion pieces and letters referred to police as “goons” and “thugs,” commentators described police as “beating” Chasse to death and articles addressed Humphreys’ past use of force cases that wouldn’t be admissable in trial.
The city hired a local legal video specialist to compile the Internet media coverage of the Chasse case for the court’s review.
Usually, courts don’t decide on venue changes until after the voir dire examination of jurors. But Rice asks this court to “not rely heavily on precedent” but make a decision much earlier because of the complexity of the case.
A date for oral argument on the city’s change of venue request has not been set.