Reno man denied new trial in rape, murder near university

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — A Nevada judge refused to grant a new trial Thursday for a Reno man sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 19-year-old college student more than eight years ago in one of the highest-profile cases in the city's history.

Washoe District Judge Scott Freeman ruled that James Biela's new lawyers failed to prove he was denied a fair trial when he was convicted of killing Brianna Denison and sexually assaulting two other women in 2008 near the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Biela, 34, a former Marine and pipefitter, showed no emotion before he was led from the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles.

Denison's aunt, Laruen Denison, said family members were relieved.

"We are thrilled with the outcome," she told The Associated Press. "He's getting what he deserves."

Among other things, Biela's lawyers argued his Miranda rights were violated and that the case should have been moved out of Reno because of the unprecedented pre-trial publicity.

In his ruling from the bench after four days of testimony, Freeman said there's no evidence Biela was denied effective legal representation during his trial or his subsequent failed appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court in 2012.

Freeman said that any errors Biela's public defenders made didn't rise beyond the level of a technicality, and any mistakes they may have made formulating a defense strategy couldn't be questioned in hindsight.

"The outcome of Mr. Biela's trial would not have been different," Freeman said. "Based on the court record, there was overwhelming evidence for the jury to find Mr. Biela guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

The judge said he would issue a formal written ruling within 20 days.

Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was abducted in January 2008 while sleeping on a friend's couch at a residence near the university campus just north of the downtown casino district. About a month later, local TV stations broadcast the news conference live when Reno police announced they had found her body in a field in south Reno.

Investigators said she was smothered with a pillow, then later raped and strangled with the strap of her best friend's thong underwear. They believed she was the victim of a serial rapist with a fetish for women's panties who had assaulted at least two other college students.

As a manhunt intensified, blue ribbons in honor of Denison appeared on fences, posters and lapels throughout the Reno area.

Biela was arrested that November following a tip from his former girlfriend. DNA testing later tied him to the crime scene.

In addition to his death sentence, Biela received four life prison terms on charges related to the other assaults.

His new lawyers, Christopher Oram of Las Vegas and Edward Reed of Reno, said the only previous case in the region with pretrial publicity rivaling this one was Darren Mack's conviction for the 2006 killing of his ex-wife, Charla, and attempted assassination of the family court judge who handled their divorce.

That trial eventually was moved to Las Vegas. Oram said this one should have been too.

"Hate permeated this society," he said.

Deputy District Attorney Terry McCarthy said Thursday moving the trial wouldn't have eliminated the overwhelming evidence against Biela. "It doesn't lead to the result that the decision would have been different, just in a different place," he said.

Oram also argued that a Reno police detective misled Biela around his right to remain silent when he read him his Miranda rights during an initial interrogation, expanding on the actual Miranda warning to suggest Biela could "evoke a constitutional right that didn't exist." Police videotape shows Detective David Jenkins told Biela:

"Even if you elect initially to talk to us, you can change your mind at any time you want and we will honor your request immediately and if there is a specific question that you don't want to answer you can say I want to talk to you but don't want to talk to you about that and we will honor your request."

Oram said that was significant because during the trial prosecutors recounted only what Jenkins said next, which was, "I asked him if he had intended to kill this girl and his response was, 'I don't want to answer that.'"

Freeman said Thursday there's no existing Nevada case law that suggests once the detective read Biela his Miranda rights, he wasn't free to mislead him.

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