CEDAR RAPIDS — The lawyer for a Cedar Rapids man charged with fatally stabbing Chris Bagley in 2018 said Wednesday his client’s trial should be moved out of Linn County because “inaccurate and misleading” media coverage has created prejudice and “actual bias” against his client.
Leon Spies of Iowa City, the lawyer for Drew Blahnik, 32 — charged with first-degree murder, abuse of a corpse and obstruction of prosecution — submitted numerous articles from local newspapers and other media outlets as examples of the coverage that started after Chris Bagley, 31, of Walker, went missing Dec. 13, 2018, and was found March 1, 2019, buried in southeast Cedar Rapids.
Spies, during the Wednesday change of venue hearing in Linn County District Court, said the media coverage continued after Bagley’s body was found and when two men associated with Blahnik — Andrew Shaw, 31, and Paul Hoff, 40, both of Cedar Rapids — were charged in federal court for drugs and firearms.
The coverage also continued into this year following the grand jury indictment of Blahnik, Drew Wagner and Paul Hoff in Bagley’s death.
Most of the information from those hearings and search warrants — including details that Blahnik stabbed Bagley on Dec. 14, 2018, in retaliation for drug robberies committed by Bagley — were “untrue” and wouldn’t be admissible in Blahnik’s trial, Spies argued.
The details reported, he said, are “contrary to what the evidence will show.”
The coverage has slowed down during the coronavirus pandemic, but he believes it will “ramp up” again as it gets closer to Blahnik’s trial, scheduled for Feb. 15.
He gave, as an example, the Jerry Burns’ murder trial and how press coverage increased closer to trial. Burns was convicted in February of first-degree murder in the 1979 fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Michelle Martinko at Westdale Mall.
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, arguing against moving the trial, said the defense has failed to prove that Blahnik couldn’t have a fair and impartial trial in Linn County. The defense, he said, points to news accounts and social media posts but they don’t prove a substantial prejudice among prospective jurors in Linn County.
Vander Sanden said there is nothing “remarkable or notable” in the coverage of this case that wouldn’t be expected in a murder charge. The articles have been accurate and factual. He agreed there had been “provocative” comments on social media, but there’s no evidence those were made by Linn County residents.
Many of the articles just rehashed what had been previously reported when a new event in the case happened, Vander Sanden noted.
By the February trial date, details in the articles likely will not be recalled by any prospective juror, Vander Sanden argued. To meet the standard requirement for a change of venue, it’s not enough for a juror to have heard about a case. The standard is whether a prospective juror has formed an opinion about the case and could not be fair and impartial, he said.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Christopher Bruns said he needed to review the media coverage and would try to have a ruling next month, at the latest.
Wagner, 34, pleaded in June to amended charges of voluntary manslaughter, assault while participating in a felony, conspiracy to commit a forcible felony, abuse of a corpse and obstruction of prosecution.
During his plea hearing, he admitted to starting a fight with Bagley for robbing their drug dealer, Shaw, and then held Bagley down while Blahnik repeatedly stabbed Bagley.
Wagner, initially charged with first-degree murder, faces up to 37 years in prison. He will likely be sentenced after testifying against Blahnik.
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Hoff, 42, of Cedar Rapids, already sentenced to 14 years for firearms and drugs, is also charged in Bagley’s death with abuse of a corpse and obstruction of prosecution. He is being tried separately.
Andrew Shaw, 31, of Cedar Rapids, a large-scale marijuana trafficker, was convicted and serving up to eight years in prison. He was not charged in Bagley’s death.
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