Crime

Judge refuses to move trials in acid-barrel case

The "acid lady case" — as it has become known — won't be tried out of town. For now, at least.

That is the decision Fresno County Superior Court Judge Wayne Ellison made Tuesday after attorneys for Larissa Schuster and James Fagone argued for a day and a half that their clients couldn't get a fair trial here.

The attorneys said the whirl of media attention over the 2003 death of Timothy Schuster — whose acid-drenched remains were found in a storage unit that his wife had rented — tainted any potential jurors.

"A day doesn't go by when someone doesn't ask me when the 'acid lady case' will begin," said Schuster's attorney, Roger Nuttall.

But Ellison said he believes there are plenty of people in Fresno County who "have not formed a fixed opinion" about Schuster and Fagone and would qualify as jurors.

The judge, however, left open the possibility that the attorneys could renew their request in the future to move the trial.

Fresno County Superior Court judges have not allowed a local case to be tried elsewhere since 1993. Even Marcus Wesson, who killed nine of his children in March 2004 in a case that attracted national media attention, was tried locally.

But Fagone's attorney, Peter Jones, pointed out Tuesday that in the decade before 1993, the court granted motions to move trials for eight defendants.

Schuster, a 46-year-old chemist, is accused of murdering her estranged husband, Timothy Schuster, while they were battling through a messy divorce after more than 19 years of marriage. Timothy Schuster disappeared from his Clovis home on July 10, 2003.

Fagone, 24, is a suspected accomplice in the murder.

Jones told the judge that Schuster has "been portrayed as a diabolical psychopath" and as "a monster in this community." He added: "And my client has been inextricably linked to her."

Nuttall hired a City University of New York professor to survey 400 people in Fresno County and 400 people in Alameda County in May and ask them what they thought of Schuster. Psychologist Steven Penrod found that more than 85% of Fresno County residents are familiar with the case. Of those people, 61% say they believe Schuster is "definitely or probably" guilty, according to the survey. Fagone's trial is scheduled to begin Thursday. Schuster will be tried in January.

Asked whether Fagone will receive a fair trial in Fresno County, Jones replied: "I'm not a prophet. We'll wait and see."

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