RENO — Lawyers for a Nevada death row inmate seeking a new trial after he was convicted of the rape and murder of a college student argued Monday that one of Reno’s highest profile cases in decades should have been moved somewhere else.
Defendant James Biela’s former public defender Mazie Pusich was the first witness to testify at an evidentiary hearing Monday in Washoe District Court about the extensive pretrial publicity that surrounded the 2008 kidnapping of 19-year-old Brianna Denison from a friend’s home a block from the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.
“It was extraordinary,” said Pusich, recalling the blue ribbons that popped up all over town during a massive search for Denison and the subsequent manhunt for a suspect that police soon dubbed a “serial rapist.”
“They were everywhere,” Pusich said. “All over town — on signs, on trees, on overpasses. There were bumper stickers and signs in the back of cars.”
Pusich said every prospective juror had already heard something about the case that ended with Biela’s conviction for murder and the sexual assault of two other young women near the UNR campus.
She said it was the most pretrial publicity she’d seen in more than 20 years as a public defender. That included the high-profile murder trial for former Reno pawnshop owner Darren Mack, who is serving a life sentence for the 2006 killing of his wife and shooting of a family court judge.
In 2012, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld Biela’s conviction. He is now asking Washoe County Judge Scott Freeman to grant a new trial based in part on evidence not presented at the first trial.
His new lawyers, Christopher Oram of Las Vegas and Edward Reed of Reno, argue in a motion for post-trial relief that the original judge’s refusal to grant a request for a change of venue is one of the reasons Biela didn’t receive a fair trial. They also claim his Miranda rights were violated and his original team of public defenders didn’t adequately represent him.
Pusich acknowledged that in hindsight they could have handled some things differently and may not have initially recognized the significance of some details in tens of thousands of pages of testimony, interrogation and police interview transcripts.
Biela’s lawyers wrote in court filings before the hearing that a Reno police detective misled Biela around his right to remain silent when he read him his Miranda rights during an initial interrogation.
Police videotape shows Det. David Jenkins told Biela:
“Even if you elect initially to talk to us you can change your mind at any time you want and we will honor your request immediately and if there is a specific question that you don’t want to answer you can say I want to talk to you but don’t want to talk to you about that and we will honor your request.”
That is significant, Biela’s lawyers say, because during the trial prosecutors recounted only what Jenkins said next, which was, “I asked him if he had intended to kill this girl and his response was, ‘I don’t want to answer that.’”
Oram said Jenkins had suggested Biela could “evoke a constitutional right that didn’t exist.”
Pusich agreed that part of the trial was especially damaging to the defense.
“It made it look like Jimmy was hiding something,” she said, noting that if she had it to do over, she would have tried to have Biela’s statement suppressed.
The hearing is expected to continue into next week.