Ohlson murder case likely moving out of Teton County
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DRIGGS — Teton County will probably not host its first murder trial in more than 20 years after the defendant’s attorneys argued to have it moved to a larger population center.
Erik Ohlson, 40, faces the death penalty on charges that he shot and killed a Driggs resident and her unborn child last summer. The trial is no longer scheduled to begin July 31.
“The county of Teton is a very rural county drawing a small number of inhabitants,” wrote Ohlson’s attorneys. “There is the potential… more than 1 in 7 people in the county have direct knowledge of the case, have known the victim, or is a spouse or immediate family member of someone who [is].”
Jim Archibald, Ohlson’s defense attorney, based in Idaho Falls, explained his motion in Idaho District Court last week.
“Change of venue is designed for a situation like this,” he said. “We don’t want to tarnish the legitimacy of the trial.”
Archibald claimed media reports on the case included details that were ruled inadmissible in court—namely Ohlson’s confessing the crime to Idaho State Police—and that this further justified moving the trial.
“It is difficult for the public to un-remember things,” he said. “Everyone I have talked to says, ‘oh, that’s the dude that confessed.’”
Archibald argued that the trial should be moved somewhere that people were less likely to have heard of it, saying neighboring Bonneville County would be far enough.
“What potential jurors have read is very critical,” he said, comparing the size of the two counties. “Bonneville County has a 110,000 population… Population base is a big factor in denying change of venue.”
Although Teton County Prosecuting Attorney Billie Siddoway argued that Teton County residents could host a fair trial, she agreed that moving to Bonneville County would be a possibility.
“We might be able to agree… to take the trial to Bonneville county,” she said. “I think it provides economic relief for the county.”
Siddoway explained that it would be challenging to find enough hotel space in the valley for parties to the trial, such as witnesses and jury members, let alone ensuring that they stayed separated for several weeks.
At the same time, Siddoway also said that moving the trial too far away would be cost prohibitive.
“Over fifty witnesses have been identified in this action,” she wrote in her motion. “Of those, over half reside in Teton County, and the vast majority reside within 100 miles of this county.”
Siddoway said she estimated the trial would need to be extended from three to four weeks just to get through all the evidence and arguments, which would further add to the expenses.
Although Siddoway was inclined to agree to move the trial for practical reasons, she argued there were no legal reasons to do so.
“It’s not required that the jury be ignorant of the case,” she said, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. “The standard allows jurors to have heard of it, they just can’t have made up their minds.”
Siddoway said this included even extensive media coverage of a case, so long as it did not create a “carnival atmosphere.”
“Even though the pretrial publicity covered the Court’s decision to suppress the Defendant’s confession, there is no evidence that the potential jurors cannot impartially weigh the evidence presented to them,” she wrote. “Statements regarding the confession were not inflammatory, editorialized, or inaccurate.”
Judge Bruce Pickett asked few questions during the hearing, but did wish to hear what both sides thought the impact of changes in the media environment had on the modern day jury pool.
“I think there’s an argument to be made that there’s so much more information that these articles get lost in the crowd,” he said. “It may actually decrease the interest people have in one particular case.”
Archibald flipped that argument on its head to say more information reached more potential jurors.
“The means of communication with other jurors has increased in the age of social media,” he said, adding that past cases deciding changes in venue (most have refused) were little help precisely because of how different the media environment was.
“If we look at case law, they didn’t even have color TV then,” he said. “Much less the internet and social media.”
In her argument, Siddoway reiterated that media coverage did not impact whether residents could fairly weigh the evidence in court.
“This is a small community—we don’t have murders here,” Siddoway said. “There is some general evidence of interest, but that’s a long step from [people] having made up their minds about the case.”
Judge Pickett is expect to rule on the motion within the next month.
This article was originally published in the Teton Valley News. It is used here with permission.