Remaining Grunwald murder suspects want trial moved to Fairbanks
Attorneys for the remaining two suspects in 16-year-old David Grunwald's murder want their trial moved to Fairbanks.
Chris Provost is the attorney for 18-year-old Bradley Renfro; Craig Howard represents 21-year-old Austin Barrett. The two suspects will be tried together for the third and final proceeding in the case, for which Provost and Howard have both filed change-of-venue motions.
In his motion, Provost says media coverage, social media posts and the run of David's mother Edie Grunwald for lieutenant governor would prevent the Palmer court from finding a fair jury.
Howard's motion also notes the international attention the case received, as well as community discussions surrounding criminal-justice reform measure Senate Bill 91.
David Grunwald was reported missing the night of Nov. 13, 2016. His burned-out Ford Bronco was found the next day and hundreds of community members searched for him in the following weeks.
On Dec. 2 of that year, Dominic Johnson led investigators to David's body in the woods off Mile 7 of Knik River Road.
Alaska State Troopers arrested four suspects on murder charges: Johnson, Erick Almandinger, Bradley Renfro and Austin Barrett. They were charged with brutally beating and shooting David.
Investigators said the group pistol-whipped David in the trailer behind Almandinger's house, then drove the teen out to the woods and executed him with one gunshot to the head.
HIGH-PUBLICITY MURDER TRIALS
Almandinger and Johnson also filed, but Judge Gregory Heath – who is hearing all four cases – determined it was possible to find enough impartial people to sit on the jury in Palmer.
In each trial, the court brought in hundreds of people who filled out questionnaires. Then state prosecutors and the defense attorneys interviewed each person individually, a process called "voir dire."
Almandinger was the first to go to trial. One piece of evidence presented was video of a three-hour long interview Almandinger had with state troopers. In the recording, Almandinger first tells an investigator is was Barrett who pulled the trigger, then later said it was Johnson who fired the fatal shot.
After two weeks of witness testimony and evidence in May 2018, a jury convicted Almandinger on all nine charges, including first-degree murder, assault, kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
Media coverage surrounding Almandinger's trial made jury selection for Dominic Johnson's trial difficult.
In his motion, Provost cites KTVA's live streaming coverage of the trial, which drew thousands of viewers each day who watched the murder trial play out in real time.
KTVA planned to live stream Johnson's trial as well, but stopped at the request of the Grunwald family.
"Having witnessed the difficulties in retaining potential jurors after individual voir dire on the limited issue of exposure to the news and social media, the dismissal of an unusually high percentage of potential jurors from the panels, Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald delivered a letter to the court requesting that live streaming of the second trial not be permitted," Provost wrote.
Jury selection in Almandinger's trial took six days; Johnson's jury-selection process took 16 days over the course of one month.
State prosecutors said Johnson's was one of the longest trials in Palmer history, with four weeks of jury selection and five weeks of trial.
"Media reports along with photographs and journalistic commentary of the evidence presented and admitted into evidence in Dominic Johnson's case were published daily," Provost wrote.
In December of 2018, a jury convicted Johnson on all nine counts.
In his motion, Barrett's attorney wrote there is no way to document the social media word-of-mouth that the Grunwald murder cases have received.
"There were calls for laws to be changed, parents to be held accountable and the death penalty to be brought back and unconstitutionally applied to juveniles," Howard said.
EDIE GRUNWALD PUBLICITY
Provost also said Edie Grunwald's unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, and her appointment by newly elected Gov. Mike Dunleavy to head the state Parole Board, has brought more attention to the case.
He also cites a Frontiersman article that named Grunwald as the "Frontiersman Person of the Year" in which reporter Amy Armstrong wrote Grunwald "is a celebrity – instantly and continuously as she keeps up a religious pace attending public meetings across the state in an effort to raise awareness on behalf of her son and in fixing the flaws she sees in the state's current crime laws."
FINDING A FAIR JURY
Provost and Howard are requesting the trial be moved before potential jurors are brought in for questioning.
"The notion that Mr. Barrett can get a fair trial in such a small venue in the aftermath of two of the most high-profile trials to be tried in years in Palmer is frankly ludicrous," Howard wrote.
Even with the Mat-Su Borough's population of about 100,000, Provost believes it's unlikely to find a fair jury considering the number of people who helped search for Grunwald and the people who paid attention to the media coverage.
"Yes, it would be most inconvenient for the Grunwalds, the court and the parties to change venue to Fairbanks," Provost said. "On the other hand, it would also be likely that a jury could be seated in a week or so in the more distant venue of Fairbanks."
Howard noted that a change-of-venue motion usually isn't granted until jury selection has been attempted. He urged the judge to preemptively relocate the trial in an effort to save time, estimating Renfro and Barrett's trial could take up to one month.
"Changing venue now allows everyone to make travel plans, secure lodging and be prepared for trial on a certain date," Howard wrote.
It will be up to Heath to determine if the trial will be moved.
Renfro and Barrett will be back in court at the beginning of March for an evidentiary hearing.
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: