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Change of venue requested in murder trial

Jessica Dayton

The attorney for murder suspect Jessica Dayton has begun the process of attempting to move the trial out of Iowa County.

Douglas Eichholz, Dayton’s attorney, filed a motion Nov. 23 to disseminate a juror questionnaire to potential jurors in Iowa County. The purpose of the questionnaire is to prove Dayton would not receive a fair trial in Iowa County and that a change of trial venue is needed.

Sixth District Judge Denver D. Dillard approved the request to disseminate the juror questionnaire Dec. 3.

“The court notes that the parties have agreed to the proposed questionnaire and the court finds the questionnaire to be reasonable and appropriate,” Dillard wrote. “The information to be granted from the juror questionnaire may be important to further pretrial motions.”

Dayton’s trial is scheduled for Jan. 4 at 9 a.m. in Iowa County District Court. Dayton, Denise Frei and Jacob Hilgendorf are charged with first-degree murder in connection with the July 19 killing of Curtis Bailey, Marengo.

Frei and Hilgendorf are both scheduled to go on trial May 17.

Iowa County Attorney Tim McMeen said it is his belief a fair and impartial jury can be seated in Iowa County, and a change of venue will not be granted.

“There is not a lot of doubt in my mind,” McMeen said. “Right now, we expect the trial to stay right where it is. We will be ready to go Jan. 4.”

The juror questionnaire will be mailed by the Iowa County Clerk of Courts office to prospective jurors who are scheduled to be drawn for the month of January. The deadline for the completion of the questionnaire is Dec. 16.

In Eichholz’ motion filed Nov. 23, he writes that the facts and circumstances surrounding the Dayton case have generated more than minimal publicity in local newspapers, radio and TV.

In the context of the pretrial publicity, Eichholz wrote that under the Constitution, a defendant must be given an opportunity to show that a change of venue is required in this case. The sixth amendment guarantees the right to an impartial jury in the state or district wherein the crime shall have been committed.

“The test is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that prejudicial news prior to trial will prevent a fair trial and if so, the judge should continue the case until the threat abates, or transfer it to another county not so permeated with publicity,” Eichholz wrote. “In order to ensure that a panel is selected that is fair and free of bias, the court should grant authority to submit the requested juror questionnaire for completion by the entire panel to be reviewed by the court and parties prior to jury selection.”

The questionnaire asks prospective jurors if they are familiar with the Bailey murder case, and if so, from what sources did they obtain information.

The questionnaire also asks if the prospective juror is able to set aside such information and sit as a fair and impartial member of the jury.

McMeen filed a motion Nov. 24 to resist application to disseminate a juror questionnaire.

“In reviewing the juror questionnaire prepared by the defendant, the state would indicate the questionnaire is largely an attempt by the defendant to obtain a general public opinion as to prospective jurors’ attitudes toward this case involving Jessica Anne Dayton and many of the questions included in the juror questionnaire prepared by the defendant do not specifically go to the issue of whether a juror could be fair and impartial juror, but are more specifically directed to obtaining a public survey and awareness as to whether or not the defendant is guilty of the offense as charged,” McMeen wrote. “The state would specifically resist the defendant’s application for questionnaire.”

Once the need for a juror questionnaire was approved by Judge Dillard, McMeen collaborated with Eichholz to work out their differences with regard to the questionnaire.

Eichholz did not return phone calls requesting comment.

UPDATED December 10, 2009 1:08 PM

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