Change of venue hearing goes Thursday
A hearing on a motion to move the criminal trial of W.R. Grace and seven current and former company officials out of Montana is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, at the federal courthouse in Missoula before Judge Donald Molloy.
Indictments in the case were handed down in February. The trial was initially scheduled for May 2006, but the date was later changed to Sept. 11, 2006. Charges against the company and its officials include conspiracy, Clean Air Act violations and wire fraud.
Grace attorneys asked for a change of venue, citing "six years of inflammatory coverage" by the news media that "vilified and demonized the defendants." Relocating the trial is the only way to have an unbiased jury, the company's attorneys argued.
In a response filed in October, federal prosecutors countered that press coverage has not been inflammatory or prejudicial.
"The majority of proffered examples of press coverage are objective, factual, and contain no mention of the individual defendants by name," the government attorneys wrote. "The Constitution does not require a jury comprised of people who do not read the newspaper; it requires a jury of people who have not formed unshakable opinions and will base their verdict on the evidence and the law."
They noted "the long-standing constitutional principle" of trying criminal cases in the district in which the crimes allegedly occurred.
Grace's attorneys said media coverage of the case includes more than 1,900 print articles, "myriad" television broadcasts, two documentary films, and two books. Government attorneys countered that the majority of pretrial publicity of this case occurred in 2000 and 2001 and that there has been "relatively little" media coverage since the indictments were announced.
Grace's petition to move the trial lists Boise, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle as suitable sites. The company contends that more than half of the prospective jurors in Montana have already decided the defendants are guilty.
The Grace motion quoted Edward Bronson, professor emeritus of political science at California State University-Chico, who has served 112 times as an expert witness in change-of-venue cases. He called media coverage of the Grace case "among the most inflammatory I have ever encountered, full of pathos and anger."
Among the defendants in the case is Alan Stringer of Libby. The former superintendent and general manager of Grace's vermiculite mine and current company representative in Libby, Stringer is charged with conspiracy, Clean Air Act violations, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.
Also facing charges are company senior vice president Robert Bettacchi; Henry Eschenbach, a former health official for a Grace subsidiary; O. Mario Favorito, chief legal counsel for Grace; former company vice president Robert Walsh; Jack Wolter, a former executive for Grace's construction products division; and former Libby mine general manager William McCaig.
The Grace officials face potential prison sentences if convicted while the company could be penalized two times the gross gain obtained through the crimes.