A judge rejected an attempt Friday to move the sexual assault trial of former Kennewick High teacher William B. Pickerel to Spokane County.
The Kennewick School District’s lawyer argued unsuccessfully that too many potential jurors will be tainted by recent stories about two other Kennewick teachers and the district’s former superintendent also accused of child sex crimes.
That’s why an upcoming civil trial involving three of the 15 men who say they were sexually assaulted as students by Pickerel should be moved, said Michael McFarland Jr.
The Spokane lawyer submitted a number of social media postings to the court in the cases of former district employees Tonie Ann Reiboldt, Oscar Perez Garnica and Paul W. Rosier, and said they provide sufficient evidence that the trial needs to be transferred to another venue.
McFarland argued if the civil lawsuit goes before a Benton County Superior Court jury as scheduled May 15, jurors won’t be able to avoid news about the district because Reiboldt’s trial is schedule for the same courthouse on May 22 and Garnica’s sentencing is two days later.
On top of that, Rosier’s recent arrest and pending June 12 trial on a federal charge will still be fresh in their minds, he said.
“A large number of community members are paying very close attention …,” McFarland said. “Factual publicity can be inflammatory. When dealing with allegations of sexual abuse against minors, that in and of itself is inflammatory” against the district.
Judge Carrie Runge called the motion premature because there is “no evidence suggesting we are unable to get a jury that can be fair and impartial in this case.”
A large number of community members are paying very close attention. … Factual publicity can be inflammatory. When dealing with allegations of sexual abuse against minors, that in and of itself is inflammatory.
Michael McFarland Jr., attorney for Kennewick School District
The plaintiffs — who range in age from mid- to late-20s to about 48 — say the district failed to protect them from Pickerel or to stop him, even though administrators and teachers were aware of his sports outings with male students.
Runge was assigned the 2 1/2 -year-old case in December after Judge Robert Swisher’s retired.
She told McFarland and Jeff Kreutz, who represents the 15 plaintiffs, that lawyers in high-profile criminal cases usually prepare a jury questionnaire. She suggested they do the same in this case to help find out if potential jurors have heard information about the lawsuit or have negative feelings toward the school district, so then those people can be questioned individually.
The defense can raise the issue again during jury selection if the court is having trouble finding unbiased jurors.
However, concerns over recent publicity with the criminal cases might not be a factor if the lawsuit’s trial is delayed.
Runge said it is not a viable date for her because she has a murder case starting in Franklin County the same day. She agreed to keep the current trial date in the interim just in case the murder trial is postponed.
Otherwise, Runge said she could not hear the case until July or October.
This trial is the first of four in the lawsuit against the district. Pickerel, now 81, is not name in the suit.
Pickerel was convicted in King County in 2008 of molestation and sexual misconduct with a minor for molesting students on overnight trips to Seattle. The trips were not organized by the school.
The school should have had knowledge of Mr. Pickerel’s propensities and inappropriate behavior. The school knew or should have known and taken appropriate steps prior to (one student’s) abuse. Had they done that then this whole thing, this whole case would not have been here.
Jeff Kreutz, attorney for the 15 plaintiffs
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released on good behavior in early 2014 after serving 5 1/2 years.
Pickerel, taught in Kennewick for nearly 38 years. He also was a wrestling coach. He retired in January 1998 but continued to work as a substitute teacher.
“The school should have had knowledge of Mr. Pickerel’s propensities and inappropriate behavior,” Kreutz said. “The school knew or should have known and taken appropriate steps prior to (one student’s) abuse. Had they done that then this whole thing, this whole case would not have been here.”
The criminal case involved five victims, but Pickerel confessed to police that he molested “numerous other boys over 27 years.”
The lawsuit against Kennewick School District was filed in October 2014.
The district last year asked Swisher to separate out each plaintiff so there would be 15 trials. Swisher denied that request, but he divided the plaintiffs into four groupings — three in the first trial and four each in the other trials. Dates have not been set for those trials.
The district requested a discretionary review of Swisher’s ruling by the state Court of Appeals in Spokane, and their motion was denied by court Commissioner Monica Wasson. The district then appealed the denial and asked to have the motion examined by the entire panel of appellate judges.
McFarland said Friday he is optimistic the request might be granted because it has been two months since they filed and there’s been no word either way.
On Friday, he asked Runge to halt the Superior Court proceedings until they hear back from the Court of Appeals, saying otherwise it would be a waste of time and money if they went forward with the first trial and then got an appellate ruling in favor of the defense.
Runge refused to delay the trial or dismiss the case. She said the “ultimate decision” about the allegations should be up to a jury.