Judge cites Vindy impact on seating an impartial jury ‘intense coverage’ as threat to partiality
At the request of the defendants, a visiting judge has refused to publicly release more bills of particulars in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case.
Although he has unsealed other documents in response to a motion by a lawyer for The Vindicator and 21 WFMJ-TV, Judge William H. Wolff Jr. of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court noted in Tuesday’s order that the bills of particulars contain information that may not be admissible in the trial.
“Taking into account The Vindicator’s intense, tough coverage of this case, the court concludes that publication of these documents would result in a substantial probability that seating an impartial jury in Mahoning County would be impossible,” the judge ruled.
Judge Wolff also found that the jury-selection problem is compounded by the need to find jurors who can sit through the estimated two- to three-month length of the trial, set to begin June 6.
Although moving the trial to another Ohio county is a potential remedy for the effects of pre trial publicity, “The court’s effort to seat an impartial jury should begin in Mahoning County,” the judge wrote in his order.
“We do not believe either the facts or the law support that conclusion,” Marion H. Little Jr., the lawyer for The Vindicator and WFMJ, said of the judge’s decision.
“We are evaluating our options but certainly believe the [Ohio] Supreme Court will have a different perspective,” Little said.
If the judge is concerned correctly about prejudice, the remedy is to move the trial to another Ohio county, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled as recently as April, Little observed.
Judge Wolff wrote he found credible the expert testimony of Hugh Martin, an associate professor of journalism at Ohio University, who testified for the defendants at a Dec. 6 hearing that The Vindicator dominates the media scene in the Youngstown area.
Judge Wolff wrote that the newspaper and its website, Vindy.com, “have a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of local news in Mahoning County.”
Bills of particulars have been filed by the special prosecutors under seal for three defendants — John B. Reardon, former county treasurer; Michael V. Sciortino, county auditor; and John Zachariah, former county Job and Family Services director.
Bills have not yet been filed for other defendants charged with conspiracy to impede the move of JFS from Cafaro Co.-owned rented quarters to Oakhill Renaissance Place. The county bought Oakhill in 2006 and moved JFS there in 2007.
The others charged with conspiracy, whose bills haven’t yet been filed, are Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co.; the Cafaro Co., and two of its affiliates, the Ohio Valley Mall Co. and the Marion Plaza Inc.; and Mahoning County Commissioner John A. McNally IV.
Prosecutors earlier publicly filed a bill detailing their case against Flora Cafaro, part-owner of the Cafaro Co., and Atty. Martin Yavorcik, who are charged only with one count of money laundering and not with conspiracy.
Illustrating the extent of the newspaper and Vindy.com coverage of the case, Judge Wolff noted the newspaper website’s “Oakhill Corruption” section features numerous news stories and editorials about the case and related matters, together with links to the 73-count grand jury indictment returned on July 28 and to the Flora Cafaro and Yavorcik bill of particulars.
As for future filings other than bills of particulars, Judge Wolff ruled the newspaper has a right to be notified in advance of, and to object to, any request to file a document under seal or to close a court hearing.
The judge will then decide what gets sealed and what doesn’t, and he’ll redact or edit documents accordingly, if necessary, before unsealing the portion to be made public.
Judge Wolff ordered lawyers for the newspaper and WFMJ not to share with their clients the contents of sealed documents, but his order is silent regarding sharing of that information by the defendants’ lawyers with defendants or their public relations people, who could use it to craft statements favorable to the defendants.
“I don’t think the order places any limitations on the ability of the defendants’ counsel to share information with the defendants or otherwise prevents the defendants from communicating that information with others,” Little said.
“We’re going to defer all comment in keeping with Judge Wolff’s wishes,” said Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Co.
Bell said he hasn’t seen any sealed documents in the Oakhill case and isn’t aware of any of their contents having been shared with him by Cafaro lawyers.
Concerning another issue, the judge granted a request by the Cafaro defendants for an extension of the pretrial motion filing deadline beyond Jan. 3. They’ll now have 90 days after the special prosecutors deliver all their evidence to the defendants to file those motions.