Legal sparring could delay trials for Lake Christine Fire suspects
The amount of pre-trial maneuvering in the Lake Christine Fire case threatens to delay trials for suspects Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, a judge said Thursday.
The prosecutors and defense attorneys are sparring over what evidence can be used at trial — everything from the fire-ban signs that were posted at the Basalt shooting range last July to allegations that the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office delayed producing emails that the defense deems important to its case.
“I understand these trial dates are at risk for a variety of reasons,” said Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman. “(It’s) 12 days away from trial No. 1 and there’s a flurry of activity that has to be addressed.”
Jury selection for Miller’s trial is scheduled for May 28. Marcus’ trial is slated to start June 17.
Miller and Marcus, both 24, each face three counts of felony arson for allegedly starting the fire while using the Basalt shooting range July 3.
The issue with the biggest potential to create delay is a motion by the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office to place a “stay” on the legal proceedings while a ruling is sought from the Colorado Supreme Court. The prosecutors said they will petition the high court to overturn Dunkelman’s May 7 decision that the signs posted at the shooting range cannot be used as evidence as trial. Those signs are “critical” to the prosecution’s case because they said no tracer ammunition could be used, according to Deputy District Attorney Johnny Lombardi. Even if the Supreme Court upholds Dunkelman’s ruling, the DA’s Office will “probably” continue to pursue the cases, Lombardi said.
Dunkelman ruled the signs couldn’t be used because there was a lack of evidence showing they were official regulations by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which owns the shooting range, or that Miller and Marcus saw them.
Lombardi told Dunkelman on Thursday that a petition for review of the ruling will be filed with the state Supreme Court on Tuesday. The court takes up matters on Thursdays, though there is no guarantee it will hear the signs issue that quickly. The Supreme Court justices also could decline to hear the issue.
The DA’s Office wants all activity in the Miller and Marcus cases to be placed on hold until the high court rules or declines to hear the case.
“I’m not going to grant the stay at this time. Upon filing of the petition I will grant the stay,” Dunkelman ruled.
That means that all activity in the case — from filing of motions to starting the Miller trial — will grind to a halt next week for an undetermined amount of time.
If the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled or declined to hear the case by 2 p.m. on May 24, “we’ve got to call the jury off,” Dunkelman said.
Prospective jurors have already been notified they must appear at the courthouse in Eagle. If a stay is in place, they will be notified by a message on a juror telephone line and via a website for the court clerk’s office.
“There’s uncertainty for counsel right now,” Dunkelman said about the case.
He said there is little he can do to ease that uncertainty. Various pre-trial motions have to be settled before it can be determined if the trials can proceed as scheduled.
“We’re all in the same boat. We don’t know what the Supreme Court is going to do,” said Assistant DA Heidi McCollum.
The defendants have rights to a speedy trial. The trials must be held by July 22 unless the defendants waive their rights to a speedy trial. The stay would extend the speedy trial deadline.
Another issue that emerged Thursday was an allegation by defense attorneys Josh Maximon for Miller and Stan Garnett for Marcus that the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t cooperative in providing emails it had sent to the U.S. Forest Service complaining about the conduct of a law enforcement officer on the case. The attorneys contended that Sheriff James van Beek and a lead investigator in his office were angered by the conduct of Forest Service law enforcement officer Chris Mandrich, who also investigated the Lake Christine Fire.
The defense attorneys said they finally received emails Wednesday night that were sent last July by the Sheriff’s Office to the Forest Service. They questioned the propriety of the delay, and Garnett said he would file a motion today or Monday to get the issue before the judge.
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