SEBRING — One of the two principal defendants in the murder case of Aaron Doty is seeking a change of location for the trial, saying both traditional and social media publicity would make it impossible for him to get a fair trial in Highlands County.
The motion, filed by Byron P. Hileman, assistant regional counsel, on behalf of Kenneth Felipe Jr., may be discussed during an Aug. 27 pretrial hearing.
“Mr. Felipe cannot a get a fair trial by an impartial jury in Highlands County, because of extensive, inflammatory, and pretrial publicity in this case. This publicity saturated the written, broadcast, Internet and in the social media,” the motion states.
Authorities say Doty was killed while attending a party hosted by Felipe and Jonathan Ray Rodriguez on June 9, 2012. Felipe and Rodriguez, who are both charged with first-degree murder, are expected to be tried in January 2015. They’re accused of beating Doty unconscious and then burning his body while he was still alive.
In seeking a change of venue for the trial, Hileman attached to the motion numerous media articles, as well as a printed copy of the Facebook page titled, “Justice for Aaron Doty,” and a poem called “Justice Will be Served.”
The poem targets those at the party who did nothing to help Doty and ends with “One day you’ll get tired of running and eventually run out of breath. But no matter how you look at it, you played a part in Aaron’s death. And for that we will not stop until we know that justice is served. And everyone who attended the party that night gets exactly what is deserved!!!”
The motion says that besides media coverage, “the community’s involvement in this case and its hostility towards Mr. Felipe have created an environment in which it would be difficult for a juror to render an objective and impartial verdict.”
Despite the extensive publicity, George R. “Bob” Dekle, a master lecturer and director of the Criminal Prosecution Clinic at the University of Florida School’s Levin College of Law, said it would be difficult for Felipe or any other criminal defendant to get a change of venue.
They would have a “heavy burden” to show they would not get a fair trial in the county where the crime occurred, he said.
Dekle said the vast majority of cases in which he was involved where the trial was moved involved the defendant facing the death penalty. Felipe and Rodriguez will face the maximum penalty of life in prison.
“It’s all in getting the jury selected,” Assistant State Attorney Stephen Houchin said. If enough jurors can be selected, the trial isn’t moved, he said.
“There are a lot of people who don’t read the newspapers,” Houchin said.
But, even if people are familiar with the case, they can still be jurors if they can set aside what they heard and be unbiased, Houchin said.
He said the last trial to be moved was that of Joshua Lee Altersberger in 2009. Alterberger, sentenced to death for the murder of Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Sottile in January 2007, was tried in Polk County.
In some cases, Houchin said, social media coverage is raised as an issue.
Dekle agreed, but indicated that in general he’s not impressed with the quality of information provided through social media. It seems, he said, “that people with the least intelligence post the most stuff.”