The way police and prosecutors paint the scene of transient Forrest Clayton Salcido’s death on the California Street footbridge Dec. 5 illustrates a thrill killing.
By that account, inebriated Hellgate High School senior Anthony St. Dennis, 18, and an accomplice picked a fight with the homeless veteran to unleash some pent-up aggression over lingering legal problems. The situation got out of hand, according to a statement by suspected accomplice Dustin Strahan, as St. Dennis allegedly proceeded to stomp Salcido to death with his sneakers.
Given the grizzly nature of the charges and the state of homeless politics in Missoula and in the West, the case couldn’t help but garner attention. At the center of the coverage, St. Dennis and his public defenders felt the heat growing intense, perhaps too intense for justice to have a fair shot.
In an April interview with the Independent at the county lockup, St. Dennis expressed disgust with some of the news coverage and how he felt it portrayed him personally. The defendant said he was particularly bothered by the public insinuations of thuggery stemming from a coarsely worded letter, in which the prosecution believes St. Dennis boldly issued threats against his former friend and state’s witness Strahan.
“I read what people write about me in the paper and it makes me mad,” explained St. Dennis, who instead characterizes himself as a caring person and a dedicated friend. “I help people out when they’re down.”
Earlier this month, Judge John Larson circumstantially denied a motion by public defenders Chris Daly and Paulette Ferguson for a change of venue in the upcoming murder trial. Larson rejected the request on the grounds the brief failed in his eyes to make the case that media coverage would influence the outcome. Yet, the judge conceded that pulling an impartial jury out of Missoula County might prove difficult. To remedy this, Larson set the jury pool at 250 candidates and commissioned a questionnaire polling potential jurors on their exposure to coverage of the case. In addition to media-related content, the survey also asks topical questions like, “Are you concerned that crimes against homeless people are a serious issue in Missoula?”
It’s a healthy step short of moving the trial out of the county altogether, but will the measure satisfy the blind lady?
UM Law School criminal defense specialist Andrew King-Ries says the survey constitutes a common remedy in cases with intense news coverage. “Two-hundred-and-fifty is a huge number of potential jurors,” King-Ries explains. “The defense is anticipating that a lot of people have heard about the case, and they’ll pull those.”
Filing a change of venue request on the grounds of “extensive and inflammatory coverage”—as St. Dennis attempted in this case—is a maneuver rarely tried and even more rarely successful, legal experts say. Notable instances nationwide often involve situations where there’s a perception of a community-wide attack—for example, the Rodney King police assault trial, the Tim McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing and the Beltway Sniper case. For a small criminal trial in Montana the deck is stacked against the defendant.
The last significant attempt in this news market came during the pretrial proceedings for the upcoming criminal trial against W.R. Grace executives for allegedly covering up lethal asbestos contamination in Libby. Despite surveys showing a prominent belief among western Montanans that the company indeed committed the crime, and despite the testimony of pricey legal venue expert Edward Bronson—also employed by the Enron defense—U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy denied the motion to move the trial out of state.
County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, lead prosecutor in the St. Dennis case, says the last time he witnessed a judge grant a change of venue was almost 10 years ago.
“Obviously I have a point of view, but I think the only thing that had any legs in [the defense’s brief] was whether the news coverage would prejudice the jury,” Van Valkenburg says. “In 30 years, I’ve seen cases with more extensive coverage not get a change of venue.”
King-Ries argues the reasoning behind Montana judges’ reluctance to grant a change of venue is not only financial—linked to the direct cost of moving court operations—but also a matter of principle. “It’s a big deal to move a trial,” King-Ries says. “The defendant has a constitutional right to a fair trial and that trumps all, but there’s also a real community interest. There’s been a breach of community values.”
But, for St. Dennis, those issues are now largely academic. The surveys sent out to potential jurors comprise the first part of the official jury-selection process, known as voir dire. Next, attorneys will personally question potential jurors based on specific knowledge and life experiences. Those deemed particularly sensitive to the homeless issue, opinionated about young violent offenders or victims of a violent crime themselves will likely be culled.
Neither attorney for St. Dennis would respond to requests to elaborate on the change-of-venue request or to comment on the case at large, but the defense undoubtedly remains unsatisfied with the solution. Ferguson and Daly’s original brief argues, in no uncertain terms, that the media coverage surrounding the death of Salcido and later investigation of St. Dennis has rendered a fair trial in Missoula impossible for their client.
In the document, Daly calls stories run by local news outlets inflammatory and, in some cases, biased. The defense took particular exception to reports in the Independent and Missoulian that published excerpts from the aforementioned letter. The correspondence, addressed to St. Dennis’ aunt in Utah, contained numerous statements that could be interpreted as admissions of guilt or declarations of remorseless sentiment.
“The effect is to portray the defendant as a depraved and illiterate beast wholly beyond the bounds of civil behavior,” Daly writes.
According to Van Valkenburg, the court sent out the survey to potential jurors last week. The trial is set to begin Sept. 26.