Plains Claims It Can’t Get Fair Trial
Pipeline Company Says Potential Jurors Swayed by Negative Media Reports
Attorneys for Plains All American Pipeline contend their client — now facing 46 criminal charges stemming from last year’s Refugio pipeline rupture and oil spill — can’t get a fair trial in Santa Barbara County due to negative media coverage, and they filed legal papers demanding the trial be conducted elsewhere.
Plains’ jury expert Arthur Patterson oversaw a survey of more than 400 residents and concluded that 87 percent of the respondents read, heard, or saw media accounts of the spill, that 73 percent felt the spill had negative environmental effects and that 53 percent thought Plains All American had been either negligent or violated the law. Nearly 60 percent reportedly said they thought Plains should be punished.
These findings, Patterson argued, “reflect psychological factors that threaten the defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial in the venue.” He argued pretrial publicity — which he referred to as “PTP” — can overwhelm evidence presented at trial or even a judge’s instructions. Many prospective jurors, he claimed, do not know they’ve become biased and hence cannot be winnowed out during the voir dire process.
Patterson claimed his experts “randomly rated” 300 of the 1,472 articles written between May 19, 2015 — the date of the spill — and this June. Of those, he said, 55 originated from the local media, the rest from nonlocal sources. Curiously, he found, Santa Barbara’s press was less negatively tilted against Plains, writing about corporate negligence 13 percent of the time as compared to nonlocal media outlets, which wrote about it 25 percent of the time. Likewise, nonlocal media outlets were twice as likely to write about negative environmental and economic consequences of the spill as local sources.
Prosecutor Kevin Weichbrod said he intends to challenge Plains’ motion for a new venue, as did attorney Barry Cappello, one of three key attorneys pushing a class-action lawsuit against the company. “Absolutely ridiculous,” Cappello said of Plains’ contention, adding other stories — like the execution-style murder of Chinese herbal doctor Henry Han, his wife, and his daughter — garnered far more coverage.
In deference to the potential impacts of pretrial publicity, Superior Court Judge Jean Dandona, however, did grant Plains’ request to seal 2,000 pages of Grand Jury transcripts of witness testimony that were the basis for the 46-count indictment. Dandona expressed concern that certain passages could be highlighted, taken out of context, and go viral. This could prove prejudicial to Plains, she said.
Cappello sought access to the transcripts so he could better gauge if witnesses were consistent in their testimony. At one point, Plains attorney Susan Yu suggested Cappello might be “misguided” in his application of the law, prompting him to retort, “The only person who told me I was misguided was my 15-year-old teenage son.”
Ultimately, Dandona ruled against Cappello. The attorney said he and his partners have yet to decide whether to appeal the ruling. The change-of-venue motion is scheduled to be heard September 9.