MARENGO — Lawyers for a Williamsburg man, accused of killing his girlfriend’s child, asked the court Monday to move his trial, scheduled for next year, out of Iowa County based on extensive pretrial publicity.
Johnson County Public Defender Peter Persaud argued Cody J. Stevenson, 29, who is charged with first-degree murder, has the right to a fair trial and he cannot get one in Iowa County based on the “saturation” of news coverage following the crime and Stevenson being charged.
He also cited numerous examples of comments on social media that followed those articles and broadcasts, which contained bias against Stevenson, saying he was guilty and talking about his “confession” of the crime.
A criminal complaint shows Stevenson hit the child, who was in his care, “at least 3 to 4 times” in the abdominal area with a closed fist on June 30. The child died from injuries on July 3.
Neither the name nor age of the child is included in court records.
Court records also show Stevenson has been ordered to not have contact with another minor child.
Stevenson, who remains in jail under a $1 million bond pending trial, has pleaded not guilty and his trial is set for May 8 in Iowa County District Court.
If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.
Grace Zalenski, a freelance researcher for the defense, testified during the hearing that she conducted a phone survey of 28 randomly selected Iowa County residents. She asked if they were aware of the homicide, if they had formed an opinion and if they felt others in the community had formed an opinion.
Zalenski said there were 17 aware of the crime, nine of whom had formed an opinion. Furthermore, she said 12 of the 28 people surveyed said they believe the community in general has formed an opinion in the case.
Zalenski said she also conducted the same phone survey with 25 residents in Linn County, where the defense suggested moving the trial. Only one person was aware of the Iowa County homicide and hadn’t formed an opinion, she said.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Douglas Hammerand turned around the numbers on cross examination and pointed out the survey results in Iowa County also show 19 of the 28 residents hadn’t formed an opinion.
Zalenski agreed with him.
Hammerand also pointed out that the community question is based on speculation.
Zalenski said it could be speculation but said research shows that people form their opinions based on community perspective.
Hammerand argued there has to be a “substantial likelihood” that prejudice exists, not just the volume of news coverage. He said many of the defense’s concerns can be remedied during jury selection to “weed out” any biased jurors.
If the trial is moved to another county, it shouldn’t be Linn County, where there are more news outlets, Hammerand added. Persaud said Linn County was suggested based on the survey but he isn’t opposed to another county.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Christopher Bruns took the change of venue under advisement and said he would issue a written ruling in 30 days or so.
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