Tanner King trial moved to Story County
‘I’m calling it quits,’ judge says after jury tampering, exhaustion
After nearly two days of tedious selection processes to convene a fair jury for Tanner King’s double homicide trial, District Court Judge Kurt Stoebe ruled Tuesday that it would be unlikely for the court to find 14 impartial jurors in Webster County. Thus, the trial that has been scheduled for months will start jury selection again in Story County on Nov. 12.
“We’ve been at this a day and a half, and we already have jury tampering,” Stoebe said. “The community doesn’t even know who the jurors are.”
The court began to approach exhaustion of the 100 people brought in for a jury pool Monday as it barely scratched the surface of voir dire open court questioning, the process which allows the prosecution and defense attorneys to learn more about potential jurors and exercise a number of allotted strikes to tailor the jury.
Friday’s pre-trial conference foreshadowed concerns that manifested in jury selection this week.
Stoebe said he would be “shocked” if a significant number of jurors didn’t know of King, the numerous witnesses to be called or the families affected by the October 2018 shooting of Fort Dodge brothers Marion Rhodes, 37, and El Dominic Rhodes, 34.
But nobody predicted reports that would shock the court only mid-way through jury selection Tuesday.
Although most details were withheld in open court, two jurors reported being confronted by third parties with knowledge they were being considered for the jury, raising concerns of intimidation.
In Tuesday’s hearing to determine the fate of the trial’s venue, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Susan Krisco said those two did not bring concerns to the court privately until questioning prompted them to on the second day.
“The fact that they would not come on their own volition gives us concern that it’s going to happen to other people,” she said. “If they don’t come forward, what will their (verdict) decision be based on? Unfortunately, we don’t know who knows who.”
“The communications that were made to the two jurors that were revealed to us were shocking,” Stoebe said before ruling on the venue change. “It tainted those jurors.”
Tuesday afternoon seemed to be off to a reasonable start as voir dire questioning began.
“Does anyone here think … this isn’t the right case for them to be on?” Krisco asked. Two raised their hands.
A few jurors said they had read or heard something in the news about the trial, against the court’s admonitions.
Most of those jurors said they would be able to remain impartial despite what they saw or heard, but more private questioning was prompted for replacements, nonetheless.
But the court started to reach a dead end by the end of Tuesday, having lost over half of its jury pool for various disqualifying causes.
The court also cited news coverage of King’s history with law enforcement over the last several years and jurors’ knowledge of “bad acts,” including arson, burglary and a jump from the roof of the Webster County Law Enforcement Center while in custody, events which would be inadmissable at trial.
“If that information is factual, the court has the discretion to determine that it’s not prejudicial to the defendant,” Stoebe said. “However, the prior bad acts that have been outlined in extensive press coverage before today and that appeared in The Messenger this morning, as well as on the radio, is of very great concern.”
The judge remained concerned particularly with jurors who said they read some of the news but couldn’t remember specifics, whose memories could be refreshed as evidence is introduced.
But the issue of jury tampering, Stoebe said, was “probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I’m concerned we will not be able to detect that such an influence occurs until it is too late,” he said, acknowledging that jurors being intimidated may hesitate to report the instance even more with the passage of time during trial.
The trial was estimated to take about two weeks, possibly stretching into a third. The new trial date will re-start the process two weeks and two days before Thanksgiving.
“The defendant’s right to a fair trial has to be protected,” Stoebe said as he delivered the news to the jury pool, releasing them from the case.
“I’m worried you folks will have communications (about the case) from neighbors, the garbage man,” he said, “then we’re 10 days into trial wondering about whether to tell the judge. … Then you have to worry about that on down the road, ‘should I have said something?'”
“That’s not a fair burden to you,” he said. “I’m calling it quits.”