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Mark Stodghill, Duluth News Tribune, Published May 24 2013

Duluth police officer's assault trial moved to Pine County

The trial of a Duluth police officer accused of assaulting a man in a wheelchair after taking him to the Duluth Detoxification Center has been moved to Pine City because of potentially prejudicial pretrial news coverage here.

Officer Richard Jouppi, 35, is charged with misdemeanor fifth-degree assault and disorderly conduct in connection with the Sept. 21 incident, which was captured on videotape and shows the officer attempting to restrain a belligerent Anthony Jon Jackson and then punching Jackson repeatedly after Jackson struck Jouppi once in the face.

Jouppi’s defense attorney, Frederic Bruno, requested that the trial be moved from the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth because he said his client couldn’t get a fair trial here.

State District Court Judge John DeSanto has granted the request. In a memorandum to his order, DeSanto wrote: “The court concludes potentially prejudicial material in this case — namely, pretrial publicity — creates a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial cannot be had in the original venue. In light of all the facts and circumstances, a change of venue would promote the ends of justice. Accordingly, the motion to change venue is granted.”

Before becoming a judge, DeSanto supervised the criminal division of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office for more than 30 years and tried countless cases before juries.

In the five-page memorandum to his order, DeSanto wrote that the case is fairly simple on the legal merits, but it carries a significant burden of collateral issues including race relations, police power and city politics. He said the case was further distinguished by the considerable attention it has received from the news media and independent Internet commentators.

DeSanto referred to a study conducted by Diane Wiley, president of the National Jury Project Midwest in Minneapolis. Wiley was hired by Jouppi’s attorney. In that study, Wiley said that more than 40 articles and broadcasts on the Jouppi case have appeared in the Duluth media market as of late March, including 15 News Tribune articles and approximately 30 broadcasts or web postings by the local television stations.

Wiley reported to the court that even when potential jurors say they have little recollection of news coverage of a particular event, evidence and testimony often rekindles memories of news coverage, especially when coverage has been pervasive.

“The coverage of this case has been pervasive,” DeSanto wrote. “Ms. Wiley’s final conclusion is that a change of venue is appropriate.”

The media coverage included video of the incident showing Jackson slapping at Jouppi’s face and Jouppi punching Jackson several times in response and taking Jackson to the floor by tipping the wheelchair backwards.

DeSanto wrote that the video has appeared on a number of Internet postings and has been viewed “tens of thousands of times” on the Internet alone. “It is impossible to tell where all the people who have viewed the postings live, but it is fair to presume that hundreds if not thousands of the hits have been by potential jurors in St. Louis County. … While some of the hundreds of web comments are favorable to Mr. Jouppi, the majority are not,” DeSanto wrote.

Bruno, who was hired by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Legal Defense Fund, said Jouppi responded according to his training and experience and did what he had to do in self-defense. The Duluth police administration disagrees with the defense attorney. Jouppi remains on unpaid administrative leave with his department’s intent to fire him, but no final disposition has been reached.

DeSanto wrote in his memorandum that the potential prejudicial news coverage included reports of Jouppi’s past performance on the force, Duluth police Chief Gordon Ramsay’s vow to make sure Jouppi “will never work for the City of Duluth Police Department again,” a Native American rally protesting the alleged assault, and the formation of the Citizens Review Board.

Shawn Reed, a Duluth attorney who serves as the Hermantown city prosecutor, was appointed as special prosecutor in the Jouppi case. Reed opposed having the trial moved, but limited his comment Thursday to: “We’ll be prepared to try the case in Pine County.”

Bruno was pleased with the court’s decision. “The judge is local. He sees the TV and the study done by the National Jury Project. I think that more than justifies the move. We’re happy with the decision. It’s not unexpected, but it’s definitely welcome.”

The trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 18 at the Pine County Courthouse in Pine City.