Wednesday, 01 February 2023

Judge grants Hughes change of venue; jury dismissed

LAKE COUNTY – The judge who was to preside over the double murder trial of a San Francisco man brought proceedings to a halt Thursday when he granted the defense's request to take the trial to another county. {sidebar id=31}


Judge William McKinstry, a retired judge from Alameda County assigned to the Renato Hughes Jr. trial, granted defense attorney Stuart Hanlon's change of venue motion the fourth such motion Hanlon has made this year, according to District Attorney Jon Hopkins.


“I'm still speechless,” said Hopkins late Thursday.


Even Hanlon admitted to being surprised, but said it was necessary because of the jury's exposure to the media.


He said 50 percent of those jurors seated had been exposed to media reports about the case.


“I'm really glad it happened,” Hanlon said of the venue change motion being granted.


Hughes is being tried under the provocative act theory for the murders of his friends, Rashad Williams and Christian Foster, who were shot to death by Shannon Edmonds as they ran from his home on Dec. 7, 2005.


Edmonds was not charged for the deaths of Williams and Foster, who – along with Hughes – were allegedly in his home to rob him. Hopkins told Lake County News in a Wednesday interview that former District Attorney Gary Luck didn't believe they could prove a case against Edmonds.


But the provocative act theory holds Hughes responsible because he took part in a crime that resulted in a lethal response – in this case, Edmonds' shooting of Hughes' two friends.


Judge makes decision after jury seated


McKinstry did not cite racial composition or media coverage as the basis of his decision, said Hopkins.


Rather, McKinstry granted the venue change based on the number of jurors excused for various causes, said Hopkins.


“He added up the number of challenges without any regard for what they were based on,” said Hopkins.


In the case of one prospective white male juror dismissed on Wednesday, that included religious beliefs, according to this reporter's courtroom observations.


McKinstry said the number of challenges “gave him a doubt as to whether there could be a fair trial,” Hopkins reported.


Hanlon, however, claimed McKinstry talked about media exposure and race issues in making his decision.


The issue of Lake County's small racial minority came out in the jury selection process, said Hanlon. The court originally issued 350 jury questionnaires, with most of the people being selected as prospective jurors have little or no contact with blacks.


The selection process, said Hanlon, “convinced the judge that this was not the right place for the trial.”


Hanlon said race impacted all of the factors the court needed to explore in making the decision, including the size of the community, the nature of the community and media coverage. “Race is not a separate factor, it's part of the whole mix.”


Earlier on Thursday, a jury had been seated after a three-week selection process, Hopkins reported. The jury consisted of seven women and five men. It was, mostly white but had some Hispanic members, although Hopkins did not have a precise number.


Those jurors will now be dismissed, said Hopkins.


“I thought the jurors that came in proved that they could be fair and impartial,” said Hopkins.


Hanlon said there is “nothing wrong” with Lake County. “I think many African Americans get a fair trial here given the nature of the charges.”


It will now be up the state Administrative Office of the Courts to choose three alternate counties where the trial can be held, Hopkins said.


The choice of counties will depend upon a variety of factors, including available facilities, the amount of publicity the case has received there and whether a judge is available to hear the case, said Hopkins. It's not yet been determined if McKinstry will stay with the case.


Hopkins suggested that the Bay Area's counties are off limits because of media coverage, with reports about the trial reaching even more people than those centered in Lake County.


The prosecution and defense will return to court Dec. 14 to find out if the Administrative Office of the Courts have selected three counties, said Hopkins. He said he couldn't be certain three counties would be chosen by that time.


Once they are chosen, however, there will be a hearing and “the judge makes the call” about where the trial will be held, said Hopkins.


Hanlon didn't say which county he thought the trial should go to.


However, he stated, “If we get to a county that has a more diverse makeup and population of people, we're going to win this trial.”


Hanlon said he is going to begin work on researching where the trial should be held, a matter he said he wasn't in a position to talk about at this point.


Exploring ways to keep the trial local


The county will have to pay a higher bill to try the case in another venue, said Hopkins, but just how much it will cost isn't known at this time.


Hopkins said he needs to explore what remedies might yet be available to him in keep the trial local.


He said there is the possibility that he could file a writ for review by the appellate court, seeking to keep Lake County as the venue.


“I'm not convinced that I'm going to do that at this point,” he said.


Saying he wants to get the trial done as soon as he can, Hopkins explained that if the trial is held in a nearby county and it won't cost Lake an excessive amount of money to move it there, he will likely go along with McKinstry's decision.


However, if it's likely to be moved much farther away at a greater expense, he may do the writ, he said.


“There are a lot of variables I've got to consider,” Hopkins added.


With the change of venue motion granted, the trial likely won't begin until early next year, Hopkins said.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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