The opinions, rumor and ostensible confession that have been reported in print, online and on television make it difficult if not impossible for accused cop killer Brian Fitch Sr. to get a fair trial in Dakota County, his attorneys argued Wednesday.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys also debated the constitutionality of the Minnesota law allowing Ramsey and Dakota counties to convene a grand jury and to jointly prosecute Fitch.
Fitch, 39, is charged with first-degree murder in the July 30 death of Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick, and first-degree attempted murder in connection with a shootout with police in the North End of St. Paul after an eight-hour manhunt.
Defense attorneys hired the National Jury Project Midwest to conduct a survey of 265 random Dakota County residents from Oct. 27 to Nov. 17. That survey showed that 91 percent of residents questioned knew about Patrick’s killing and 83 percent said they believed Fitch was “probably guilty” or “definitely guilty.”
Many respondents were openly hostile toward Fitch, calling him “a ruthless human.” “He is evil, the devil.” “He is a coldblooded murderer, and he doesn’t deserve a trial.”
Those same respondents had only kind words to say about Patrick, and 43 percent of those surveyed said they or someone they know had a personal connection to the officer.
Among the exhibits filed by the defense was the affidavit of Diane Wiley, president of the National Jury Project Midwest, who wrote:
“My recommendation is that the trial be moved to a different, noncontiguous county. I base this recommendation on the fact that every defendant is entitled to a fair and impartial trial.”
Defense attorneys told District Judge Mary Theisen on Wednesday that the central question is, “Can Mr. Fitch get his constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury here?
“Clearly, he can’t,” Traub said.
Several venues were mentioned, including Crookston and Olmsted County (Rochester, Minn).
Prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz said media coverage can have just as much of an influence there as it does in Dakota County. He argued to keep the trial in Hastings. “We’re confident we can get jurors here,” he said.
Traub and co-defense attorney George Cohoes also want Theisen to sever the joint prosecution so that Fitch can be tried in Dakota County — or another venue — in connection with Patrick’s death and in Ramsey County for his alleged actions before he was shot and captured.
The state constitution, Cohoes said, guarantees a defendant the right to a jury in the county where the crime occurs.
“But you’re asking me to move the murder case,” Theisen responded. “First, we’re asking for severance,” Cohoes replied.
Traub told the judge that several witnesses to the shooting, which happened when Patrick tried to make a routine traffic stop a couple of blocks into the city of West St. Paul, said the shooter was blond and in his 20s. Another witness said the shooter was Hispanic. Another said there were two black men. Fitch is almost 40, and was bald then as he is today, she said.
“Mr. Fitch runs the real risk of being convicted of the Dakota County incident because of the Ramsey County incidents, solely on the evidence in Ramsey County,” Traub told the judge.
The incidents shouldn’t be seen as the same pattern of behavior, because eight hours elapsed between Patrick’s shooting and Fitch’s arrest, she said. In those eight hours, Fitch went to a Dairy Queen and a tire store, stopped at a store to buy cigarettes for a friend and visited a Jimmy John’s.
Prokopowicz told the judge that despite the time lapse, Fitch’s actions were “evidence of flight to avoid apprehension.”
“It defies logic and common sense to say they’re unrelated,” Prokopowicz said. When Fitch was arrested, he had the same weapon that was used to kill Patrick,” he added.
Defense attorneys argued several other motions Wednesday. One was that the composition of the joint grand jury did not accurately reflect the populations of Ramsey and Dakota counties. The final grand jury had 12 Ramsey County residents and 10 from Dakota County. It should have had 13 and 10, respectively.
Theisen told the attorneys that she would probably rule on the motion for a change of venue first, then the constitutionality issue. She said she would rule “as soon as humanly possible” but asked both sides to waive the seven-day requirement for her ruling. They did.