Complaining that news reports have subjected him to ridicule and condescension, San Diego City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez has asked a judge to move out of San Diego County his trial on felony charges of misusing a city credit card.
In a motion filed in San Diego County Superior Court, Martinez argues that hundreds of newspaper articles and radio and television broadcasts have branded a negative image of him in the minds of potential jurors in the San Diego area.
A poll conducted on behalf of Martinez and submitted to the court as evidence of public bias found that 27% of a random sample of area residents believe the councilman is guilty of criminal conduct while only 1% believe he is innocent.
“The reporting has been extraordinary and inflammatory in this case,” says the motion, filed last week by Raymond J. Coughlan, Martinez’s court-appointed attorney.
“Would you like to be tried here with that publicity about you?” Coughlan asked in an interview Wednesday.
Martinez’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 29 on 24 felony counts charging that he illegally used a city credit card to purchase $1,840 worth of meals and drinks on 20 occasions between November, 1984, and June, 1985.
Prosecutors will oppose the councilman’s attempt to move the trial to another county, said Steve Casey, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
“We feel, indeed, that Mr. Martinez can get a fair trial in this community,” Casey said Wednesday. “This is a case of public interest and importance, and the people of this community should not be denied an opportunity to sit in judgment.”
A hearing on the motion, and a request by Martinez that the charges against him be dismissed, is scheduled Sept. 12 before Superior Court Judge Barbara Gamer.
The motion by Martinez--accompanied by copies of more than 200 news articles published in the last year--argues that press reports have exposed potential jurors to “gossip” and “rumors” about Martinez’s private life, calls for his resignation, grand jury testimony unrelated to the charges and racial innuendo.
It argues, too, that San Diego area jurors’ politics might clash with Martinez’s and that criticism of his reliance on a court-appointed defense lawyer could color jurors’ attitudes about his guilt or innocence.
San Diego residents, the motion notes, are the victims of Martinez’s alleged crimes and thus may not be the appropriate pool from which to draw jurors for the case.
Martinez “has been the subject of extensive public ridicule,” the motion contends--including editorial cartoonists’ caricatures and newspaper reports about a bumper sticker reading, “Honk If You’ve Dined With Uvaldo.”
“Cartoons and bumper stickers will be impossible to erase from the minds of San Diego citizens and jurors,” Coughlan argues.
The motion is harshly critical of news reports--stemming mainly from the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that resulted in Martinez’s indictment in March--concerning the councilman’s private life, including the state of his marriage and his relationships with other women.
Evidence presented to the grand jury, and testimony given at Martinez’s preliminary hearing, indicated that the councilman often was dining with women with whom he had social relationships on occasions when he told city auditors he was out with public officials and others discussing city business.
“The wholesale spreading of gossip about the defendant, such as his sexual behavior, the status of his marriage, his admissions and those of others (and) the inner workings of his mind, in addition (to the) lampooning and ridiculing of the defendant and the charges against him--all evidence that may be inadmissible at trial--has created a circuslike atmosphere in this county, exposure to which has been unavoidable by most citizens,” the motion says.
The district attorney’s office plans to complete a point-by-point response to Martinez’s claims this week, Casey said.
Underlying prosecutors’ opposition to moving the trial is a sentiment that major criminal cases should be tried in the area where the alleged offenses occur.
“As a general proposition, it’s our feeling that cases which have particular importance to the community ought to be heard in that community,” Casey said.
Public officials under criminal indictment have varied in their attitudes toward facing trial on their home turf.
The trial of former San Diego Municipal Judge Lewis Wenzell on charges of soliciting prostitution was moved to Orange County in 1981 because of pre-trial publicity. Wenzell nonetheless was found guilty, though the conviction later was reversed. He ultimately resigned from the bench.
Former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock never sought a change of venue for either of his two trials on felony conspiracy and perjury charges.
Hedgecock, who is appealing his conviction and a one-year jail sentence, said in an interview Wednesday that even though he was concerned about negative pre-trial publicity, he concluded that he would have been unable to fulfill his duties as mayor if the trials had been held outside San Diego.
“I decided, even knowing I probably would not get a fair trial, I should stay here because my responsibilities as mayor came first,” Hedgecock said.
But he added that he agrees with Martinez’s decision to seek a transfer of his trial. His duties as a city councilman differ from those of a mayor, Hedgecock said. Moreover, there is little doubt that pre-trial publicity has biased potential jurors in San Diego against Martinez, he said.
“I think he’s correct that the nature of the press coverage . . . has really made it almost inevitable that whatever jury is selected will have in its own minds a presupposition he’s guilty,” Hedgecock said.
Coughlan declined to discuss any political factors Martinez may have weighed in deciding to seek a transfer of his trial. But he said legal considerations alone justified the request.
“What we have done is an absolutely required legal step,” he said. “No lawyer would have advised a client under these circumstances not to file this motion.”