On Friday, January 11th, the District Court considered a change of venue for the trial of Trenton Rodriguez. Rodriguez is charged with Intoxication Manslaughter with a vehicle, a 2nd degree felony, and Intoxication Assault with a vehicle, a 3rd degree felony. In October of 2011, Mr. Rodriguez was involved in a car accident after leaving a party that left one man dead and another woman injured. Rodriguez was the driver of the vehicle and alcohol and/or drugs are allegedly a factor. If convicted, Mr. Rodriguez could serve from two to 20 years for the intoxication manslaughter charge and up to ten years for the intoxication assault charge.
Since the punishment for these charges are severe, the family for Mr. Rodriguez felt that he should be tried in a county where a fair trial could be assured. Mr. Rodriguez attended LBJ High School and is a recent graduate. The man who died in the accident, Adam Lefford, was also a student at LBJ High School and known to many in the community. According to witnesses for Trent Rodriguez, the accident was tragic. Shock and sadness over the accident have divided the community because both of these young men are well-known.
The request for a change of venue by the family and Eddie Shell, lawyer of Mr. Rodriguez, relates to a petition, which 158 people signed, that has circulated throughout the City of Johnson City as well as to an ad that had been placed in the Johnson City Record Courier in memory of Mr. Lefford on his birthday. The petition, according to Rodriguez’ family, is inflammatory and purposefully attempts to persuade people that Mr. Rodriguez has continued to participate in the same type of behavior that may have caused the accident. Rodriguez’ family insists that these items have skewed the community’s opinion against Mr. Rodriguez, therefore, tainting the jury pool. They believe an impartial jury would be impossible to seed.
The District Attorney’s office, however, believes that an impartial jury can be seeded. Blanco County has approximately 10,600 citizens. Although many of these citizens are not eligible to serve on a jury, the county does have enough citizens who have not been personally affected by the emotions attached to this case. Mr. Bunyard, the Assistant District Attorney, questioned Kelly Smith, a witness for Trent Rodriguez. He asked her if most of the opinions she heard were from people who lived in the Johnson City area and the small communities surrounding Johnson City. Ms. Smith replied that most of the opinions she had heard were from those in this area. Since she does not reside in the county and only taught at Johnson City ISD, she was only acquainted with people in the northern part of the county.
Mary Stevenson, a second witness for Mr. Rodriguez, has lived in Johnson City for many years, attends church in Johnson City, and has had children graduate from LBJ High School. She also has family who live in Blanco, which is near the southern end of Blanco County. Ms. Stevenson had heard about the petition from Jennifer Holt, the defendant’s mother, who had emailed a copy of the petition to Ms. Stevenson. She also mentioned that Facebook, Twitter and other social media contributed in spreading animosity toward Mr. Rodriguez. In Ms. Stevenson’s opinion, she believes that the petition has prejudiced people against Trent and that it would be difficult to find an impartial jury from anywhere within the Blanco County.
The only witness called by the DA’s office was Chief Randy Holland of the Johnson City Police Department. Chief Holland resides within the city and interacts with the community on a regular basis. When District Attorney Sonny McAfee questioned Chief Holland regarding his perception of the community’s reaction to the accident, Chief Holland responded that most of the people to whom he spoke asked him about what had happened. Many were unsure about the events surrounding the accident. However, he has not spoken to any citizens recently regarding the case and feels that the defendant would receive a fair trial if it were to be held in Blanco County. Mr. Shell, the defense attorney, handed the Chief a copy of the petition and asked him to read it. He then asked Chief Holland if he felt the petition would be detrimental to picking a jury if those in the jury pool had read the petition. Chief Holland felt that the jury pool would not be swayed by the petition. In his opinion, some of those who signed the petition did so out of compassion for the family.
After Chief Holland stepped down, Ms. Miller, an assistant to Defense Attorney Eddie Shell, cited for the court Article 31.01 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and a decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals in a 2007 case, Gonzales v State of Texas, as the controllers in this case. Due to the permeation of inflammable publicity regarding this case, in particular, the petition, the defense believes that the petition that has infiltrated the community has left a negative imprint on the citizens of Blanco County and has, therefore, tainted the jury pool. DA McAfee disagreed saying that the case Ms. Miller referred to dealt with media influence and not a petition or a personal email. He said that the best test of whether Mr. Rodriguez would receive a fair trial in Blanco County would be to go through the jury selection process. If an impartial jury could not be seeded, then the motion for change of venue could be granted.
Mr. Shell countered that the negative perception created by the petition of Mr. Rodriguez as still participating in the behavior that caused the accident, namely, drinking and drug use, does impact potential jurors. Since there are four counties within the 33rd Judicial District, moving the venue would make for a cleaner trial and judicial economy. DA McAfee stated that every case has publicity and most of them are heard within the district where the publicity occurs and, more often than not, the publicity does not taint a potential jury.
After hearing both sides, District Judge J. Allan Garrett denied the motion to change venue and declared that the trial would be held in Blanco County. If it becomes apparent through the jury selection process that a fair trial cannot be had in Blanco County, then he will reconsider the motion. The trial will be held by March 18th, 2013.