A Fresno gang member accused of killing a 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez in 2015 will be tried in Fresno County Superior Court, a judge ruled Friday.
In making his decision, Judge Arlan Harrell concluded that Modoc gang member Brian Cooks, 24, who has confessed to firing the bullet that killed Janessa on a cold January night in 2015, could get a fair murder trial in Fresno County.
Fresno defense attorney Curtis Sok, had filed a change-of-venue motion, contending that negative pretrial publicity made it impossible for Cooks to get a fair trial in Fresno County.
In a hearing on July 13, Sok argued that Janessa’s death had became a symbol of senseless gang violence. He said the trial should be moved elsewhere because people are fed up with gang killings in Fresno. If Cooks was tried here, Sok contended, jurors would take out their rage and exact revenge on Cooks, who told police he was shooting at a rival in self-defense and didn’t intend to kill the girl.
There has been no showing of a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial could not be had by the defendant in Fresno County.
Judge Arlan Harrell
But Harrell wrote in his ruling that he evaluated the testimony of defense expert Bryan Edelman, who has a doctorate in social psychology and law, the arguments of Sok and prosecutor William Terrence, and the “allegedly prejudicial media coverage.”
Harrell wrote: “There has been no showing of a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial could not be had by the defendant in Fresno County.”
Police say Cooks was firing at a rival when his stray bullet struck Janessa in the stomach while she stood outside a laundromat on Marks Avenue near Clinton Avenue in the early evening of Jan. 18, 2015. Her killing sent shock waves throughout the city, prompting police Chief Jerry Dyer to dispatch 40 detectives who worked around the clock until the shooting was solved. Dyer took Janessa's death so hard, he went to her funeral.
Two years after her death, a survey of 400 potential Fresno County jurors found that 70 percent of them still knew details of the girl's killing. Of the 70 percent, about 66 percent of them believed Cooks was guilty of murder, Edelman testified at the July 13 hearing.
Police say Cooks was firing at a rival when his stray bullet struck Janessa in the stomach while she stood outside a laundromat on Marks Avenue near Clinton Avenue on Jan. 18, 2015.
Terrence, however, argued there have been more horrendous murder cases than Janessa’s that weren't granted a change of venue. Terrence also said Cooks contributed to the pretrial publicity by writing a letter to a local television station and talking to a television reporter on the phone.
Terrence said he is open to having potential jurors fill out a questionnaire to see if they know details of the case and are prejudged toward Cooks. If they answer yes to those questions, they would be excused, he said.
Changes of venue are rarely granted in Fresno County. The last local defendant to receive a change of venue was Clovis biochemist Larissa Schuster, who was sentenced in 2008 to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted by a Los Angeles County jury of murdering her estranged husband, Timothy Schuster, by knocking him out with chloroform and stuffing him in a barrel of hydrorchloric acid in July 2003.
Her co-defendant, James Fagone, however, was tried in Fresno County Superior Court and convicted in December 2006 of murdering Timothy Schuster. Fagone also is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.