No decision was made in court last week on a request to move the murder trial of Daniel Messel out of Brown County.
Messel, 49, of Bloomington, is charged in the slaying of 22-year-old Indiana University student Hannah Wilson. Her body was discovered April 24 in a vacant lot at State Road 45 and Plum Creek Road in Brown County.
Messel appeared in person in Brown Circuit Court on June 17. For other court hearings, he had appeared by videoconference from the Brown County jail, where he has been housed since his arrest April 24.
Judge Judith A. Stewart said she would take the request under advisement. She gave no time frame for when she would rule.
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Messel’s attorney, Dorie Maryan, requested the change of venue May 22.
She cited public outrage over the killing, public hostility against the defendant and news stories that reprimand Messel and disclose “otherwise inadmissible evidence.”
Messel does not take issue with the extensive coverage of his case, but he is concerned about speculative connections people have made between him and two other cases: Lauren Spierer and Jill Behrman, Maryan said.
Spierer went missing from Bloomington in June 2011 and has not been seen since. Behrman went missing from Bloomington in 2000, and her remains were found in Morgan County in 2003. John Myers II was convicted in the Berhman case and is serving time.
Maryan called the connections “prejudicial” and said the speculations could influence the juror pool in Brown County.
Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James T. Roberts argued that changing the venue does not guarantee a fair trial.
“Wherever it’s tried, it will generate comment, reportage about the past,” Roberts said.
This is not the first time Brown County has seen a high-profile case that had many news stories surrounding it, he said.
In February 2014, James D. Bowyer was found not guilty of arson and arson with intent to defraud in the fire that destroyed the Little Nashville Opry in 2009. Bowyer was the former business manager of the concert venue.
Coverage of the case had gone on for years. The jury was from Brown County and had exposure to published stories and rumors.
Roberts said adjoining counties have had even more publicity about the Messel case than Brown County has.
“I think Brown County is the best place for a fair trial,” he said, citing the limited media coverage here.
Prosecutor Ted Adams cited four stories from the Brown County Democrat about the Messel case, two of which appeared on the front page. The local coverage of the case is “distinguished by its lack of sensationalism,” he said. The stories contain no “inflammatory statements” and do not suggest that Messel is guilty, and any reference to his criminal history is “extremely limited,” Adams said.
Stewart said pretrial publicity is not prejudicial when it presents facts, but it can become prejudicial when making connections to other crimes.
Maryan argued that Brown County is not “isolated from the nature of the publicity,” and that jurors have had access to other media reports from surrounding counties due to the Internet and TV.
In his memorandum of opposition, Adams said the relative lack of traditional media outlets in Brown County will help provide a fair trial compared with other counties.
Roberts suggested passing out a sample questionnaire to potential jurors to see if there is any bias. If jurors have a prejudice against Messel, that could be determined in individual questioning.
Adams added that witnesses are either in Brown or Monroe counties and that physical evidence is in Brown County. He said travel time will be a burden on his small office, and that both sides will face additional expenses if the venue is changed that “will ultimately be borne by the public.”
He said the request to move the trial was premature. “Public hostility” or “public outrage” cannot be determined until potential jurors are examined by the court and attorneys, he said.
Stewart said bringing in a jury from another county could be an option, but she does not think “any of the surrounding counties will have less concern.”
The next hearing for the case is scheduled for July 22.