Rubashkin's lawyers say trial needs to leave state
BY GRANT SCHULTE • Des Moines Register
Former meat-plant executive Sholom Rubashkin's trial should be moved out of Iowa to avoid a toxic jury pool, his lawyers plan to argue before a federal judge today.
Defense lawyers asked to move the trial before and were rejected, but were given the chance to refile once the Cedar Rapids trial drew near. Such requests are usually granted only in the most extreme circumstances, lawyers say.
The debate revolves around whether Rubashkin, 49, can receive a fair trial after the heavy press coverage of the May 2008 raid at Agriprocessors Inc., the Postville slaughterhouse that he once ran, and the subsequent immigration and bank fraud charges levied by prosecutors.
Jim Clarity, who represents Agriprocessors, agreed in court papers that a judge should move the trial to an area where the case is less known.
Guy Cook, a member of Rubashkin's legal team, has argued that statements against the plant, including a newspaper essay by Gov. Chet Culver, have prejudiced Iowans against his client. Rubashkin has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has publicly denied any wrongdoing.
Defense lawyers have sent questionnaires to potential northern Iowa jurors to gauge, among other things, their knowledge of the case and opinions about Rubashkin's guilt or innocence. The results and exact questions were sealed from the public because of personal information included about potential jurors.
Venue changes are so rare that the National Center for State Courts, a clearinghouse of court studies, does not track them, a spokeswoman said.
Notable exceptions are several nationally publicized trials, including of Washington, D.C., sniper convicts Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammed and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Pretrial news coverage has been a central focus of the Rubashkin case, as defense lawyers tried to move the case to Chicago or Minneapolis. Prosecutors say the move is unnecessary.
Rubashkin, Agriprocessors' former chief executive, faces more than 2,000 years in federal prison if convicted of each of the 163 federal charges. Three lower-level managers - Brent Beebe, Hosam Amara and Zeev Levi - also are named in the indictment with the plant itself, although Amara and Levi remain at large.
The case revolves around Agriprocessors, once the nation's largest kosher-meat supplier, which was raided by immigration agents in May 2008. Authorities detained 389 suspected illegal workers, in what was then the largest single-site immigration raid on U.S. soil.
In a response to the venue-change request, assistant U.S. attorney C.J. Williams said defense lawyers had not met their "heavy burden" to justify moving the trial. In many cases, they said, the news publicity has been "largely negative toward the government and its enforcement action."
Defense lawyers also have the option to expand the size of the potential jury pool and provide more time for jury selection, Williams said.
Not only do defendants have a heavy burden to overcome to establish that pervasive, prejudicial publicity justifies a venue change even before jury selection, Williams said. "They must also persuade the court that there are not other alternatives available. The pretrial publicity has not been so extensive and corrupting in this case that unfairness of a constitutional magnitude must be presumed."
Rubashkin, 49, will face the charges during two trials. The first trial will involve the "bank fraud counts," which relate to alleged lies and false papers he sent to a St. Louis bank, overstating the value of the plant's collateral, so he could obtain cash advances on a $35 million loan.
The second trial, beginning one week after the first trial concludes, will pit Rubashkin against allegations that he harbored illegal immigrants at the plant for profit.