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PRICE — A Carbon County jury will hear the case of a man charged with murder after a deadly house fire in Price, a judge ruled Thursday.
James Pendleton Jr. asked Judge George Harmond earlier this month to move his case out of the county. On Thursday, defense attorney Don Torgerson said his client couldn't be guaranteed a fair trial in Carbon or Emery counties due to the small population of each county, pretrial media coverage of the murder case and other cases involving Pendleton, and the "unique factual circumstances" alleged by prosecutors.
"The nature of the charges and the factual allegations are, for our community, something that I think are notorious and somewhat scandalous and I think that would also be a factor in tainting the jury pool," said Torgerson, who also noted that Carbon County prosecutors filed 11 felony cases against Pendleton in 2014.
In one of those cases Pendleton, 40, is charged with murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault and conspiracy in the July 29 death of his cousin, Brian William Swink. Michael Dees, 39, and Ashley Platt, 22, are also charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. Their cases were severed from Pendleton's case after a preliminary hearing.
Investigators believe the trio kidnapped Swink and locked him in the basement of the house where Pendleton lived. Swink, 32, was still in the basement when authorities say he started the fire that killed him.
Witnesses at the preliminary hearing testified, however, that Swink went to the basement on his own and was not being held against his will. An autopsy determined that Swink died of asphyxiation from smoke inhalation.
In his argument Thursday against a change of venue, Carbon County Attorney Gene Strate told Harmond the case hasn't generated much media attention in recent months and "is not so unusual that it couldn't be tried here." As a practical matter, Strate said, many of the potential witnesses in the case live in Carbon County and the alleged crime scene is a few blocks from the courthouse.
The nature of the charges and the factual allegations are, for our community, something that I think are notorious and somewhat scandalous and I think that would also be a factor in tainting the jury pool.
–Don Torgerson, defense attorney
"The state would like to, at some point, take the jury over (to the house) to look at the basement where the alleged victim was held," the prosecutor said.
Harmond ultimately denied Pendleton's request to move the trial, saying that he didn't believe the crime was heinous enough to warrant a change of venue. The judge also ruled that pretrial media coverage of the case had not "penetrated the consciousness of the community" to the point that he would be unable to seat an impartial jury.
Pendleton's trial is set to begin June 8. In an effort to ensure that a jury can be impaneled, a pool of 100 prospective jurors will be summoned — nearly three times the number typically called.
Platt and Dees are scheduled to go on trial July 20.