Denison murder case set to go to trial
Associated Press Writer
RENO – Blue ribbons sprang up all over town as investigators frantically searched for a missing college coed who disappeared from a friend’s couch in the middle of the night near the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
The tiny pieces of fabric fluttered from street lights and fence posts as the community waited for word on 19-year-old Brianna Denison, fearing the worst.
When the popular Reno High grad’s body was found a month later under a discarded Christmas tree in a snowy field, the ribbons in her favorite color remained on icy tree limbs and casino marquees, a stubborn symbol of her hometown’s determination to find her killer.
More than two years later, the ribbons are gone.
James Biela, a 29-year-old Sparks pipe fitter, goes on trial next week for rape, kidnapping and murder in the Denison case. He is also charged with sexually assaulting two other young women.
Biela has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Even jury selection is expected to be contentious after sensational media coverage about the string of attacks that gripped the city for months.
District Court Judge Robert Perry that most people in the Washoe County jury pool have some awareness of the case.
“It’s going to be difficult to do,” Perry said of seating an unbiased panel. He acknowledged that some of the evidence will be “graphic, gruesome, inflammatory.”
Perry said he won’t consider moving the trial to another jurisdiction without first attempting to seat a jury in Reno.
“If this case is tried just about any place on the planet, there is going to be pretrial publicity and potential jurors are going to be talking about it,” Perry said.
The judge has taken several steps to try to ensure the verdict won’t be vulnerable to appeal, holding numerous hearings about the admissibility of evidence and ordering the names of jurors kept secret until after their work is done. His first move was banning ribbons.
“We don’t want blue ribbons in the courthouse. No signs, buttons, pins – ‘Justice for Brianna,’ things like that,” Perry said.
“I want to be sure we have a trial as fair as possible so we don’t have reversible error, so we don’t have to come back five years from now and have another multi-hundred thousand dollar trial,” he said. “That doesn’t help anybody – the state, the taxpayers, anybody.”
Perry hosted a special briefing with media representatives last month to outline how he intends to conduct the trial so it won’t turn into a “circus” each day Biela is led into the courtroom in a bulletproof vest with a half dozen police and SWAT team members.
He’s allowing cameras but with some restrictions.
He put a gag order on juror names based on concerns that if made public they might feel pressure to return a guilty verdict.
He’s also prohibiting lawyers and witnesses from using the word “porn” when describing Websites prosecutors say Biela frequently visited – something they intend to use to try to help prove his motive.
Biela’s lawyers know what they are up against.
“It is an emotional case, a sensitive case,” said Jim Leslie, one of the public defender’s representing the muscular construction worker who trained in martial arts and served briefly in the U.S. Marines.
Police revealed the discovery of Denison’s body during a live televised news conference and for the first time said they believed it was the work of a “serial rapist.”
“I’m worried this guy is still out there, and I’m worried somebody else is going to get hurt,” Reno Deputy Police Chief Jim Johns said into the cameras on Feb. 16, 2008.
Three days later detectives disclosed the killer had left two pairs of women’s thong underwear with Denison’s body that did not belong to her.
Within weeks, two more women came forward to say they, too, had been assaulted in the same neighborhood just a few blocks north of the downtown casino district with its famous rainbow arch, “The Biggest Little City in the World.” One of the women said she was attacked in a UNR parking garage less than 50 yards from campus police headquarters. Both said the attacker took their underwear after they were assaulted.
Authorities responded with safety workshops, and many women reported changing their daily routines to avoid walking in dark areas or alone.
Biela was arrested in November 2008 after his ex-girlfriend had become suspicious when she found two pair of thong underwear in his truck. She eventually gave detectives permission to take blood from their son so authorities could match Biela’s DNA to that found on Denison and at least one of the thongs left with her body.
Biela could face a death sentence if convicted of murder, but that would follow in a separate penalty phase after what is expected to be a three-week trial.
Court officials, anticipating many challenges, have reserved a pool of 225 potential jurors.
“I think if anybody was honest if they were polled for the jury they’d have to say they were inundated with the publicity of her disappearance,” said David Houston, a Reno defense lawyer, who has been involved in high profile cases. “But you don’t necessarily know if a juror is going to be honest.”