Clovis News

Excessive force trial will remain in Fresno

A federal judge denied a motion Monday to move a civil-rights trial out of the area because of pretrial publicity.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger said media coverage actually has been favorable to Fresno Police Sgt. Michael Manfredi, one of two officers accused of using excessive force.

Several people have sued Manfredi and former officer Marcus Tafoya, alleging they assaulted them at a party for George Rendon, a Marine returning from Iraq in March 2005.

The city of Fresno and Police Chief Jerry Dyer also are defendants in the case.

Attorney Dana Fox, who represents Manfredi and Tafoya, said his clients could not get a fair trial here because pretrial publicity has tainted the pool of potential jurors.

Wanger, however, told Fox he presented no evidence -- such as a public opinion survey -- to support his contention.

The federal courthouse in Fresno draws potential jurors from 11 counties, Wanger said. Less than 25% of them will be from Fresno, the judge said.

Wanger also said it's unlikely potential jurors have heard of the case because there's been little media coverage. Over the past four years, there have been 13 newspaper articles about the incident and fewer television reports, Wanger said.

"If you want an example of media saturation, let's talk about Michael Jackson," Wanger said.

News coverage also has been balanced, Wanger said, because Manfredi and Tafoya or their lawyers have had the opportunity to present their side of the issue.

In addition, news reports have followed the career of Manfredi, who was not fired after the March 2005 homecoming party, but temporarily lost his job over another incident.

Manfredi was fired after Dyer accused him of covering up for his subordinates' use of excessive force in October 2005. The city's Civil Service Board, however, overturned the firing in November 2007. In September last year, Manfredi sued the city and Dyer, alleging discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Potential jurors could view those reports as vindication for Manfredi, Wanger said.

Tafoya, however, was fired over the March 2005 incident. He has been charged with eight felony counts of excessive force, court records show. His criminal trial is pending.

Initially, Rendon and six other partygoers faced criminal charges in connection with the March 2005 incident. But in August 2006, the Fresno County District Attorney's Office dismissed charges against them "in the interest of justice," court records show.

In court papers, Dyer and city officials opposed Fox's change of venue motion, saying it would be easier for witnesses to have the trial in Fresno. Attorneys Peter Kapetan and Charles M. Barrett, who represent the plaintiffs, also opposed the motion, saying the Fresno courthouse is the proper place to present the evidence.

The city of Fresno already has settled one lawsuit in connection with the case. In October 2006, the city agreed to pay Gabriel and Rebecca Rodriguez of Clovis $1.6 million to settle their excessive-force claim against police.