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Nassar seeks change of venue for sex assault trial

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Attorneys representing the former Michigan State University sports doctor accused of sexually assaulting young athletes are seeking a change of venue in Larry Nassar’s upcoming trial due to intense, worldwide pretrial publicity, according to documents filed Friday in Ingham County Circuit Court.

The documents say that since Nassar was arrested and charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct a year ago, media coverage has been unprecedented.

In local media, nearly 200 stories have been published about Nassar’s alleged criminal conduct and the case has been featured in national publications ranging from Cosmopolitan to Sports Illustrated and TV programs such as ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

Meanwhile, comments on media stories and in social media have often presumed Nassar’s guilt, compounding concerns about seating an impartial jury, according to the documents.

Additionally, former Olympic champion McKayla Maroney sparked an international media frenzy this week when she posted on Twitter that she allegedly had been assaulted by Nassar for years, including shortly before she won two Olympic medals during the summer 2012 games, the documents say.

“Defendant Nassar has been called a ‘monster,’ and ‘the most prolific child molester in history,’” his attorneys wrote. “He has been called a ‘predator’ who has engaged in ‘menacing criminal acts.’ ... It is difficult to conceive of a case that has generated more widespread, inflammatory and sustained media coverage than the case against Defendant Nassar. Everyone from the current Attorney General and Michigan State University President to member of Congress have publicly alluded to — or directly discussed the allegations against Nassar and his presumed guilt.”

Nassar, who also was a former team doctor for USA Olympics, is in jail awaiting sentencing on federal child pornography charges to which he pleaded guilty.

He is scheduled for trial starting Dec. 4 on more than 20 charges of first-degree criminal sexual conducting involving athletes, mostly gymnasts who were young girls when the alleged assaults occurred. The allegations center on a treatment that the alleged victims say was abuse since it involved digital penetration without a glove, lubricant or consent.

More than 100 women have made similar complaints to MSU about Nassar, in addition to the plaintiffs who are involved in the state court cases in Ingham and Eaton counties.

Earlier this month, a judge denied a request from Nassar’s attorneys to delay jury selection in his upcoming trial due to publicity expected the same week, on Dec. 7, when he will be sentenced on the federal child pornography charges.

Change of venues are rare, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University Law School professor.

And for a judge to grant one, widespread media coverage is not enough, Henning added. The coverage needs to be inflammatory and portray a defendant in a bad light, possibly leading to potential jurors forming an opinion about the defendant.

“There is a quite a (difference) between factual reporting and more emotional appeals,” said Henning.

The other issue that will be considered is how much the coverage has seeped into the potential jury pool, including through social media.

“This may come as a shock,” said Henning, “but there are a lot of people who don’t read the newspaper or get information online. Whether in fact it is as widespread is an open question.”

According to the court documents, potential jurors in the Lansing area have been exposed to sustained media coverage that has included Super Bowl ads by some lawyers representing Nassar’s accusers, and a webpage dedicated to the criminal cases involving Nassar in the Lansing State Journal.

Meanwhile, other local media outlets attend and report on every court appearance, including arraignments, Nassar’s attorneys wrote.

With every media report, comments follow on social media, including those who have written that “a special circle of hell (is) waiting for him,” and a lawyer said that Nassar “is probably going to be one of the most prolific child molesters in the history of our state, if not our country,” according to the documents. Pictures and drawing have also appeared including guns and ropes, suggesting that Nassar be hanged, the document said.

“These people could be the casual observer — or a potential juror. Those comments clearly indicate a bias toward Defendant Nassar’s guilt and even suggest his appropriate punishment which includes extreme physical harm ... There is little doubt given the comments that the community feelings against Defendant Nassar are significantly biased and his guilt on the state criminal cases is a foregone conclusion,” his attorneys wrote.

The motion expressed concern about being able to seat an impartial jury.

“Studies have shown there is a negative impact of pretrial publicity on juror perceptions of the defendant’s criminality and likeability, in addition to an increased frequency of guilty verdicts,” the motion said, citing a study.

If a judge were to grant a change of venue, Henning said, the case would have to stay in Michigan since the charges are being brought by the state attorney general.