Caden Popovich's defense attorney is seeking a change of venire for his upcoming homicide trial.
A motion to bring a jury in from an outside county was one of several pre-trial motions that attorney Thomas N. Farrell of Pittsburgh filed on behalf of Popovich, one of two suspects charged in a double shooting death that occurred Feb 25, 2018, in an apartment in a house on Franklin Avenue on New Castle's East Side.
Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge J. Craig Cox heard arguments Friday on more than 10 of Farrell's pre-trial motions, which were rebutted by Deputy Attorney General Alicia Sutton Werner, representing the prosecution.
Cox has yet to rule on any of the motions.
Family members and friends of the victims and the suspects filled the courtroom for the proceeding. The second suspect, Dohnavin Miller, 19, also sat in the courtroom with his criminal defense attorney, Steven Carl Townsend of Pittsburgh, but they had no role in the hearing, because no pre-trial motions were filed by his counsel that were being considered Friday.
Both Miller and Popovich are in the Lawrence County jail without bond, each facing two counts of homicide and other related charges.
The pair are the accused shooters in the deaths of 19-year-olds Cameron Martwinski and Justin Luca. Martwinski's father is a county investigator in the district attorney's office. Luca's grandfather, who is since deceased, was a retired state trooper. Popovich's father was a principal in the New Castle Area School District, but resigned in January after 23 1/2 years with the district.
Werner argued that a high standard is required to declare a change of venire, and that it's been at least five months since there was any publicity on the case.
"The relevant media attention has to be relatively recent and ongoing," she said, adding, "our argument is that it's not sufficient."
She suggested that the county would have to hold a mock trial with a jury selection from Lawrence County to determine whether potential jurors would actually be familiar with the case, and also to determine if they have a fixed opinion about it.
Farrell said he supports the idea of a fake polling of peers for a jury.
"Our position is that we need to look at it," he said.
Farrell noted the circumstances surrounding a change of venire are not strictly limited to media attention. He countered that a lot of of people know about the case, and a lot of people were in the courtroom Friday.
"This courtroom is filled today, it's filled to the brim," he said. "There are a lot of people who have an interest in this case. A lot of people are related to the victims and the defendants."
The selected jurors from Lawrence County potentially could look out in the courtroom and see people they know, whether those people are testifying or not, Farrell pointed out.
"I think it's going to be a problem," he said.
And while there may not have been a lot of recent media news about the case, "there are enough people in this county who previously knew about the case," he continued. "I thought the attorney general's office would actually agree with me. All we want is a fair trial."
"This is a serious case for both sides," Farrell said. "This is Lawrence County. This county is connected, very much so."
Farrell also is seeking to have the cases against Popovich and Miller severed from each other, and to have a case regarding the gun taken from Popovich having been reported stolen severed from the rest of the charges against him.
Another pre-trial hearing in the case against Popovich is set for Dec. 16 in order to call witnesses to address a separate motion that contests a statement that a police officer overheard Popovich making to his father at his preliminary hearing. Popovich told his father that a couple of things were wrong in the affidavit with the criminal complaint but that most of the information in it was correct, according to court paperwork. Farrell argued that there is a parent-child privilege. However, the prosecution disputes that, and intends to call the police officer to the witness stand.
Yet another motion contests whether the prosecution violated the state Wiretap Act when it obtained recording of phone conversations from the county jail between the incarcerated suspects and others, which may have included attorneys.