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Santa Maria Judge Rejects Change of Venue Motion in U-Haul Murder Case

Saying that moving a trial is “an exceptional remedy,” a judge Friday denied another change of venue motion — or expansion of the jury pool — made by attorneys representing six defendants in a Santa Maria torture and slaying case. 

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rick Brown told defense attorneys representing six men on trial in connection with the slaying of Anthony Ibarra in 2013 that the request was premature and should come after potential jurors are interviewed during the selection process.

Brown made his ruling without prejudice to allow attorneys to raise the matter again.

Defense attorney Adrian Andrade said media coverage on the case has been prejudicial.

“We believe there is significant overwhelming evidence … these defendants will not be able to receive a fair trial if the court holds this matter in northern Santa Barbara County,” Andrade said.

The District Attorney’s Office opposed the change of venue, calling a defense survey of potential jurors unpersuasive.

“They haven’t tipped the scales,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said about the defense motion.

Six men and one teen will stand trial in connection with the slaying of the 28-year-old Ibarra, a Santa Maria resident in March 2013. His body was found later in a U-Haul truck parked in Orcutt.

Charged are the teen’s dad, Ramon David Maldonado, and the boy’s grandfather, David Maldonado, along with Reyes Gonzalez, Santos Sauceda, Anthony Soils and Jason Castillo. The judge last month agreed to sever the case of Ramon David Maldonado Jr. from the others.

Four other defendants, Pedro Torres Jr., Carmen Cardenas, Verenisa Aviles and Robert Stan Sosa, accepted pleas in the case.

The trial, set to start Nov. 17 with jury selection, is being held in Santa Maria Juvenile Court due to the large number of defendants, their attorneys, deputies and court staff.

Brown rejected another change of venue motion earlier this year.

As an alternative to moving the trial location, Andrade, who represents Castillo, suggested pulling potential jurors from southern Santa Barbara County or southern San Luis Obipso County to find people unfamiliar with the case.

For North County trials, jurors are summoned from the Santa Maria, Lompoc, and the Santa Ynez and Cuyama valleys, using both registered voter rolls and driver’s license information.

Brown also expressed doubts about the defense expert’s survey, which queried people in the fourth and fifth supervisorial districts. The judge noted jurors also will be called from part of the third district, which includes Guadalupe and the Santa Ynez Valley along with areas to the south.

Defense attorney David Bixby, who represents David Maldonado, said Santa Maria is still a relatively small community when considering the type of crimes the defendants are accused of committing. Expanding the jury pool to include residents of south San Luis Obispo County or the South Coast would give defendants a better chance at a fair trial, Bixby added.

Andrade had requested the motion be heard another day so his expert witness could testify. But Brown said court officials needed to move forward on the matter Friday because jury summons need to be mailed soon.

Judges ruling on change of venue requests must consider the amount of media coverage, the size of the community and the prominence of the victim, according to Brown.

He said he found media cover “largely factual,” adding the articles were not sensational or inflammatory. 

Brown cited another high-profile North County case where the defense attorney sought a change of venue, which was rejected, a ruling an appeals court upheld. 

The court in that case noted that Santa Barbara County is the 18th most populous in California. 

“It’s not a small rural county,” Brown said. “In that case, (the court) said the size of Santa Barbara County weighs against a change of venue motion.”

That case involved Ashley Johnigan, who was convicted in 2009 of driving drunk and killing Laura Cleaves in 2008 on Highway 154. Cleaves was an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office and was well-known in the Santa Ynez Valley equestrian community.

With this trial expected to last three to four months, court officials plan to pick 12 jurors plus six alternates. They plan to summon 700 people, with more than half — or higher— expected to declare hardship due to the trial’s length.

The judge also ruled Friday on a slew of pretrial motions, including reviewing whether dozens of autopsy and other photos the prosecution plans to present as evidence are too gruesome or prejudicial. 

While most were deemed acceptable, a few, including those showing injuries inside the victim’s skull, drew vehement objections from defense attorneys.

“Do we need this photograph?" Brown asked Bramsen.

“Absolutely,” she responded. “This is the photo we have that shows these two specific injuries. You can’t see it on the exterior view.”

The charges against the men involve both homicide and torture, she noted.

“It is highly relevant. Although it is gruesome, it is not prejudicial,” Bramsen said.

Defense attorney Addison Steele, who represents Solis, suggested cropping out some aspects to the picture related to the autopsy procedure.

“That is just grotesque,” Steele said.

The defense attorneys also protested allowing pictures of the unclothed victim in the U-Haul truck, with Steele calling one “needlessly graphic.”

In another matter, Brown seemed to soften his plan to hold the trial from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Defense attorneys, who have private practices and other cases, have lobbied for at least one day off each week to handle other aspects of their business. 

The various attorneys expressed concerns about the physical, emotional and financial toll of balancing the trial, keeping up with cases in other courts — some in other cities — and running their law practices.

“We simply have got to have some time off,” Bixby told the judge.

Brown who previously expressed concern that taking a day off each week would lengthen the trial said he would consider the request.

“I hear your concerns,” Brown said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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