With increasing gang violence in Fresno, a Superior Court judge faces a difficult decision: should the gang member who killed 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez be tried outside of Fresno County?
Judge Arlan Harrell said Thursday he will decide by July 21 on whether to grant a change of venue motion filed by the lawyer for Modoc gang member Brian Cooks, who has confessed to firing the bullet that killed Janessa on a cold January night in 2015.
Harrell must weigh the competing arguments on Thursday by defense attorney Curtis Sok and prosecutor William Terrence and the opinion of defense expert Bryan Edelman, who has a doctorate in social psychology and law from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Two years after Janessa was killed, a survey of 400 potential Fresno County jurors found that 70 percent of them still knew details of the girl’s killing, Edelman testified. Of the 70 percent, about 66 percent of them believed Cooks was guilty of murder, Edelman testified.
Janessa was shot by a stray bullet while standing outside a laundromat on Marks Avenue near Clinton Avenue in the early evening of Jan. 18, 2015.
Sok said Janessa’s death 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, so jurors could take out their rage and exact revenge on Cooks, who contends he was shooting at a rival in self-defense and didn’t intend to kill Janessa.
Sok said his concerns are justified. So far this year, Fresno has had 38 slayings, compared to 39 in all of both 2016 and 2015. Twenty-four of the killings have involved gangs, compared to 20 gang killings for all of 2016.
Terrence, however, said 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 telephone.
Terrence said he is open to having potential jurors fill out a questionnaire to see if they know details of the case and have prejudged Cooks. If they answer yes to those questions, they would be excused, he said.
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 it was solved. Dyer took Janessa’s death so hard, he went to her funeral.
During Thursday’s hearing, Janessa’s mother, Stacey Gonzales, cried when her daughter’s killing was described in court.
This is clearly not just another case. It impacted a lot of people.
Defense expert Bryan Edelman
Edelman testified that pretrial publicity hurt Cooks’ chances of a fair trial in Fresno County because the media has portrayed him as a gang member with a violent criminal history while describing Janessa as a sweet, kind, lovely child – almost like an “angel” – who praised God.
Under questioning from Sok, Edelman played a video of Dyer’s news conference on Jan. 30, 2015, in which the chief became emotional in describing details of the crime, Cooks’s arrest, and Gonzales’ role in getting Cooks to confess after she said she forgave him for killing her daughter. The video clip of the news conference included tearful comments from former Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
Edelman then played a video of a KMPH Channel 26 television newscast in which anchor Kim Stephens cried on air while describing Dyer’s news conference. Edelman also pointed out the killing caused the community to donate more than $18,000 to a GoFundMe account for Janessa’s funeral expenses and established a scholarship in her name at Central Unified School District.
“This is clearly not just another case,” Edelman said. “It impacted a lot of people.”
Change of venue motions are rarely granted in Fresno County.
Changes of venue, however, are rarely granted in Fresno County. For example, Marcus Wesson, who was convicted of orchestrating the 2004 murder of nine of his children in Fresno, was tried in Fresno County Superior Court and sentenced to death in 2005.
The last Fresno County 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.