Change of venue request denied in murder trial

September 19, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A jury panel of Berkeley County residents is expected to decide the fate of Roger Dwayne Smith, the man indicted in the October 2005 homicide of a 14-year-old Gerrardstown, W.Va., girl.

Berkeley County Circuit Judge David H. Sanders on Monday denied a request to move the Oct. 10 trial to another venue after hearing expert testimony indicating that selection of unbiased jurors would be difficult - but not impossible - because of extensive media attention.

Smith, 25, was indicted in February on one count of felony murder in the death of Miana Stewart on Oct. 13, 2005. Miana was found bound, gagged and tied to a weightlifting bench in the basement of her home. Smith also faces charges of attempted murder and malicious wounding for allegedly attacking Miana's mother with a baseball bat when she arrived home later that day, police have said.

A survey of 300 county residents who were asked about Stewart's murder revealed that 26 percent of those randomly interviewed could be potential unbiased jurors, Shepherd University sociology professor Virgil J. Brown Jr. said.


Brown orchestrated the random sampling at the request of defense attorneys Eric Black and Christopher Prezioso.

"No one's arguing the victim's families shouldn't have their day in court," said Black, who cited numerous media accounts of Stewart's murder by newspapers, radio and television. Black also argued the court could save resources in a pre-emptive decision to move the trial.

Citing past high-profile cases, Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely argued that the court previously was successful in seating juries.

"Some people forget what they read yesterday," Games-Neely said. "Dr. Brown's study, it specifically says, 'call in lots of jurors.'"

Brown suggested the jury pool be greater than 100 and then agreed with Games-Neely's suggested range of 125 to 150.

Though he denied the defense motion, Sanders emphasized the need for fair and extensive questioning of potential jurors under oath.

If it becomes clear that a panel of Berkeley County residents could not be seated, the court could abandon the process and still have the option to seat a panel of residents from elsewhere, Sanders said.

In response to the media coverage question, Sanders cited a recent case involving Wal-Mart that supported his conclusion that many people are so "consumed" with their own lives that they often are not closely paying attention to what is happening in their community.

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