Lawyers argue for venue change in Jefferson murder retrial
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Jefferson County Superior Court Judge Keith Harper listens to lawyers argue for a change of venue for the case of Michael J. Harper, seen on monitor.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County Superior Judge Keith Harper will rule later on a request for a change of venue in the double-murder retrial of Michael J. Pierce, the judge said after hearing an hour of testimony Tuesday.

Harper said he would rule “as soon as possible.”

The retrial of Pierce, 37, of Quilcene for the first-degree murders of Pat and Janice Yarr of Quilcene is set for May 20.

Pierce was convicted in 2010 of the murders of the Yarrs on March 18, 2009, in their farmhouse near Lake Leland.

The state Court of Appeals on July 17 unanimously reversed Pierce's 2010 conviction — for which Pierce was serving a life sentence at Walla Walla State Penitentiary — and sent the case back to Jefferson County for a new trial.

Pierce is now in the Jefferson County jail awaiting trial.

Defense Attorney Bret Roberts of Port Townsend, who filed a motion March 1 asking that the retrial be held in a different county because of pretrial publicity, said during Tuesday's hearing that an unbiased jury cannot be found in Jefferson County because of newspaper articles he described as “inflammatory.”

Deputy Prosecutor Chris Ashcraft said enough time has passed to allow the court to find a “clean” jury, and if a jury cannot be seated in Jefferson County, that will become clear during the selection process.

“The best way to find out if an impartial jury can or cannot be seated is to attempt to seat one,” he said.

Roberts used Kitsap County as an example of a location where he thought Pierce would receive a fair trial.

But if a change of venue is ordered, then the court administrator would begin contacting administrators in other counties to see where a trial can be accommodated, Jefferson County Superior Court Clerk Ruth Gordon said.

The 279-page change-of-venue brief contains 39 pages of arguments, with the remainder being press clippings, mostly from the Peninsula Daily News and the Port Townsend-Jefferson County Leader, in addition to other media sources.

“Jefferson County is full of people for whom the loss . . . is still fresh, because the ongoing coverage of the appeal process never subsided long enough for the wounds to heal,” Roberts wrote.

“The risk of prejudice and wasted financial expenditures are too great to squander time trying to pick an impartial jury in Jefferson County, where a media deluge has inundated the public with prejudicial pretrial information,” he added.

Ashcraft said Tuesday that memories of the trial have subsided since it ended, and at least 900 new people have entered the jury pool since that time, increasing the chance of finding jurors unaffected by media coverage.

“This is a small town, but it is not as insular as many farming communities where everyone grew up together,” Ashcraft said.

“This community grows because people from other locations have moved here.

“We are not looking for people who haven't heard about the case, only those who can set aside what they've heard and make an unbiased decision.”

Roberts argued that the court has nothing to lose by moving the trial to a different location.

“If the case is valid, it will travel to another location,” he said.

Pierce's defense will be argued by Roberts and Richard Davies, whose office functions as the Jefferson County public defender.

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans will argue the case in court, while Ashcraft will take care of many of the technicalities, both said Tuesday.

Both prosecutors and Davies had the same roles in Pierce's first trial.

Michelle Ham, who is the daughter of the Yarrs, was in the courtroom, along with her two children.

Rosekrans said of the Yarr family members: “They are leaving it up to us and are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.”

Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at

Last modified: April 02. 2013 6:01PM
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