Defense attorney: Finding untainted jury pool for Grunwald case will be difficult
The case of Palmer teen David Grunwald’s murder has gained national attention. Locally, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard about it. That’s why a local defense attorney says finding jurors for the trials could prove to be difficult.
While he isn’t directly involved in the case, Rex Butler has been a defense attorney for more than 30 years and knows the concept “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t exist in the court of public opinion. That includes Grunwald’s case, for which officials have named five suspects, who are all teenagers — 16-year-old Dominic Johnson, 16-year-old Bradley Renfro, 18-year-old Devin Peterson, 19-year-old Austin Barrett and 16-year-old Erick Almandinger.
Peterson is the only suspect not charged with first- and second-degree murder or kidnapping.
“I think what’s most remarkable about the situation is the young age of these individuals and the actions that are alleged to have occurred,” said Butler. “Unfortunately, we’re finding younger and younger people are committing offenses that normally were committed by older, more callous, more hardened individuals.”
A number of Facebook users have commented on the online coverage of the case, like Jessica Lunsford, who wrote, “let’s just take em out back hang em or shoot em solves everybody’s problem.”
Another comment from Holly Flagor says, “i’ll be on jury duty no problem .hang em’ high.”
And Melody Bendle writes, “I wish I could serve on this jury if and when it goes to trial piece of craps […] GUILTY,GUILTY,GUILTY,GUILTY,GUILTY.”
The nature of online conversation surrounding the case seems to confirm Butler’s concern that the jury pool is spoiled.
“If I had to guess, I would say it’s unlikely that you can find an untainted jury panel, you know, [in the Valley] or even in Anchorage,” he said.
Butler said people might lie to get on the jury, so there will likely have to be a change of venue for a fair trial. Kenai or Fairbanks might be options.
“You’ve gotta find a place where people are not affected by the pretrial publicity and hope that they’ll be honest with you,” he said.
A change of venue is expensive, as witnesses and attorneys on both sides will have to be fed and housed away from home. Butler called it a “budget buster of a case,” and said given the number of defendants, if there are multiple teens on trial at once, it could easily go on for two months.
“There’s no way they’re gonna want to have five separate trials,” he said. “By the time they get to the fifth trial, they’d have to try it on the moon.”
Several Facebook users expressed anger Tuesday that attorneys entered not guilty pleas for all five defendants.
“You’ve got several people charged. Not everybody did the same thing in the case. You don’t have an opportunity yet to look at any evidence. You don’t know who’s the leader, who actually did the dirty deed, you see what I mean?” Butler said. “There’s no way that you can get to that point, in fact it’s illegal to do anything other than enter a not guilty plea until such time as the lawyer is fully abreast of the evidence in the case.”
And to every Alaskan calling for the death penalty in Grunwald’s case, Butler says, “First of all, depending on the age of these individuals, they might not even qualify for the death penalty, number one. Number two, you don’t look at a case like this and say, ‘I’m gonna bring in the death penalty,’ because it’s certainly not going to apply to these individuals because you didn’t have it before the offense was committed, so you can not use it anyway.”
Online court records show all five teens are currently represented by public defenders whose names are not listed.
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