Judge denies change of venue in Lake Christine Fire case
A request by the defendants in the Lake Christine Fire case to have their trials transferred from Eagle County to elsewhere in Colorado was denied by a judge Thursday.
Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman said he is confident an impartial jury can be found despite a high level of local media and public interest in the cases against Richard Miller and Allison Marcus.
Among the standard for a change of venue is that pre-trial media coverage was massive, persuasive and prejudicial.
“I would not categorize the publicity as massive. It was extensive,” Dunkelman said.
A lot of the media attention is in the Roaring Fork Valley, which includes a sliver of Eagle County in the Basalt and El Jebel areas, Dunkelman noted. The highest population concentration in the county is in the Eagle Valley, so they won’t be as aware of the case, he said.
Attorneys for Miller and Marcus, both 24, claimed it would be difficult to get a fair trial because the fire affected so many people and that some were evacuated. The Lake Christine Fire and others in the state were reported on extensively during an active fire season last summer.
As further evidence that a substantial number of people have a bias against the defendants, the attorneys noted there were a large number of people posting comments to Facebook after Miller had to be rescued by Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol after he skied outside the ski area’s boundary in March. A news release of the event was posted on the Facebook pages of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and MRA as well as newspapers.
That event brought to light the hostile feelings many people in the public hold against Miller, said his attorney, Josh Maximon.
“The things that were being said were very cruel,” Maximon said.
Johnny Lombardi, deputy district attorney in the 5th Judicial District, said numerous comments on Facebook were not grounds for changing the venue. The commenters aren’t necessarily from Eagle County, he said, and media coverage of the fire doesn’t necessarily mean readers hold a bias.
He argued that the motion should be denied and the trial should be held where the incident occurred.
In denying the motion, Dunkelman said he would approve having prospective jurors fill out a questionnaire that will be used to determine if they are aware of the case and can be impartial.
Miller and Marcus each face three charges of fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony, and setting fire to woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony. Miller and Marcus are free on a $7,500 bond each.
As the cases stand now, Miller’s trial is scheduled for May 28 to June 7 with the trial for Marcus on June 17 to 28.
Dunkelman didn’t immediately rule on a pre-trial motion to suppress comments made by Miller when law enforcement officials investigated the origins of the fire at the Basalt shooting range.
The fire burned more than 12,500 acres on state, federal and private lands and destroyed three houses.
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Current Basalt officials say the town government has violated the Colorado Taxpayers’ Bill of Right by increasing the property tax mill levy over the prior years 10 times since the mid-2000s. Two former mayors contend the mill levy could be adjusted in any given year as long as it didn’t exceed the mill levy in 1994. It’s a $2 million question.