By KAREN VELIE
A San Luis Obispo County judge granted accused murderer Paul Flores a change of venue on Wednesday morning. The judge ruled the defendants could not get a fair trial in SLO County and that the case will be heard in another county.
“I think we can all agree that this is one of the most highly publicized cases in SLO County history,” said SLO County Judge Craig van Rooyen. “It has been in the news for 25 years, so we are not talking about a handful or even a few dozen articles, but intense local scrutiny and interest for decades. The interest has increased over time and has not dissipated.”
Paul Flores is charged with murdering Kristin Smart during an attempted rape in 1996 following a Cal Poly frat party. Ruben Flores is suspected of helping his son dispose of Smart’s body, which prosecutors believe was buried under a deck at his Arroyo Grande home.
Paul Flores’ defense attorney Robert Sanger argued that his client would not be able to get a fair trial in SLO County because of media coverage, billboards and misinformation. Harold Mesick, Ruben Flores’ attorney, found it would be hard to find an unbiased jury because of the amount of one sided media coverage.
“I believe this is going to be difficult to get a fair trial in any county because of the notoriety of this case,” Mesick said. “In this county the notoriety has only been one way, it has been 100% towards guilt… Because the publicity has been so slanted, they want to give him a fair trial and hang him at dawn, your honor. So I ask that we move the trial.”
Deputy District Attorney Crystal Seiler argued the coverage was based on evidence, which was largely factual, and not sensationalized.
“The court need not consider whether potential jurors have prior knowledge of the case, but if that prior knowledge is such that there is a reasonable doubt that they cannot be impartial,” Seiler said.
Following arguments, Judge van Rooyen concluded there is “a reasonable likelihood a fair and balanced trial could not be conducted in this county.”
Specifically, Judge van Rooyen pointed at issues with refuted information promoted by the Smart family’s civil attorney, stories that Kristin Smart was buried in Susan Flores’ backyard, the billboards promoting the case and two Tribune articles that included anecdotal information as reasons to move the case out of SLO County.
“From the beginning, the tenor of the coverage has been whether and when there will be enough evidence to arrest and charge Paul Flores,” Judge van Rooyen said. “Much of that coverage has been factual, but some of the media coverage has been speculative or quoted speculation.”
During the past two years, multiple sources associated with the Smart family claimed a witness saw Ruben and Susan Flores digging under Ruben Flores’ home, and then moving what was likely Kristin Smart’s body to a trailer, an assertion refuted by the alleged witness during the preliminary hearing.
Judge van Rooyen rejected the prosecutor’s argument that much of the coverage was national, and would impact jurors throughout the state.
“I don’t think this case is discussed around the dinner table in other places the way it is in this county,” Judge van Rooyen said. “There have been local candlelight vigils, fundraisers, social media campaigns related to Ms. Smart’s disappearance. I have to make sure both sides get a fair trial.”