Inside Report for July 17, 2012

Could Brandon Scott Lavergne get a fair trial in Lafayette?

The 33-year-old offshore worker from the Lawtell area was booked July 5 on counts of first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping in the May 19 disappearance of Mickey Shunick.

The search for the missing University of Louisiana at Lafayette student and Lavergne’s arrest have attracted more media attention than anything in recent history in Lafayette.

The major national news networks have highlighted the case, and local newspapers and television stations have covered the investigation without pause since Shunick’s family first reported that she never made it home after leaving a friend’s house near downtown about 2 a.m. on May 19.

It’s the kind of intense media coverage that defense attorneys might argue could make it hard to find an impartial jury, and prosecutors have already expressed concern about the prospects of a change of venue.

If history offers some guidance, any effort to move the trial out of the parish could be tough.

The decision on whether to move a case is not necessarily based on extensive pre-trial publicity, even though publicity can obviously have an effect.

In some recent high-profile murder cases, judges have found that impartial jurors could still be found, despite widespread community awareness of the crimes.

Then-accused serial killer Derrick Todd Lee’s 2004 trial remained in Baton Rouge, despite intense media coverage, and a judge also declined to move the trial of then-accused serial killer Sean Vincent Gillis from Baton Rouge in 2008.

Both were convicted of first-degree murder. Lee is on death row, Gillis is serving a life sentence.

Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret said he could not recall a single trial being moved from Lafayette since he took office 13 years ago.

A decision on whether to transfer a trial is at the discretion of a judge, but defendants generally must show not only that prospective jurors have knowledge of a case but that they cannot put aside preconceived opinions of guilt or innocence.

And the possibility of finding a fair-minded juror is helped by the fact that most residents 18 and older are eligible to serve on a jury.

In Lafayette Parish, that’s about 168,000 residents, census numbers show.

Only 12 are needed for a jury.

If Lavergne’s case does move forward with a first-degree murder charge — and if prosecutors choose to seek the death penalty — it could be one of the rare capital trials in Lafayette Parish.

Having a jury hand down the death penalty would be even more unusual.

The most recent capital case tried in Lafayette was in 2001 against Ronald J. Benson.

A jury convicted the Lake Charles man on first-degree murder for killing oil executive Ronald Shaw during a robbery of his Youngsville home.

But Benson received a life sentence after the same jury deadlocked on the whether to sentence him to death.

The last time that a jury in Lafayette handed down a death sentence was in 2000 in a case transferred from north Louisiana — a man accused beating to death his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter.

Acadiana Bureau Chief Richard Burgess can be reached at rburgess@theadvocate.com.