01/07/10 — Neal seeks change of venue

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Neal seeks change of venue

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on January 7, 2010 1:46 PM

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William J. Neal

An attorney for William J. Neal, whose client stands accused of a 1987 rape that sent the wrong man to prison for 18-plus years, argued Wednesday that a fair trial is impossible in Wayne County -- and filed a motion that asks a judge to move Neal's trial elsewhere.

Kinston lawyer Christopher Rogerson said the case of Dwayne Dail, who was exonerated in August 2007 after long-forgotten evidence turned up at the Goldsboro Police Department, drew national attention.

The defense attorney argued that the extensive public interest ensures that jurors picked in Wayne County would have already formed opinions about the case.

Those pre-formed opinions, Rogerson said, carry over not just from coverage of Neal's own case, but articles and broadcasts about Dwayne Dail's exoneration and release from prison.

"I think that's especially important ... information is being generated not only to the Wayne County public but statewide, and even nationwide," Rogerson said.

"I would contend ... it is putting various seeds in the minds of potential jurors. Basically, I would interpret this as they've got DNA (evidence) of somebody else, and that's all you need to know."

Assistant District Attorney Mike Ricks argued that coverage of Dail did not equate with media stories about Neal. The state's analysis of media coverage before the Neal trial included only items that directly referenced Neal, prosecutors said.

The assistant district attorney said Rogerson's argument about Dail's case affecting his client was a "poor analogy."

"I was struck by Mr. Rogerson's allusion to Dwayne Dail in this particular matter, that one should look at the coverage drawn to Mr. Neal (by the Dail case)," the assistant district attorney said before Judge Arnold Jones.

"And I think if you take that position ... a defendant charged with trafficking in cocaine would not have a fair trial (if the) defense ... ran a media search of Pablo Escobar," Ricks said.

Ricks, with District Attorney Branny Vickory sitting beside him, argued that any pre-formed opinions would be revealed through the selection of jurors.

"Your honor, the state's position is that we don't know, and we cannot know until the jurors are interviewed" if an impartial jury can be picked in Wayne County. "We don't know if there is any prejudice until we get the jurors in here and ask them."

Rogerson argued that even the process of jury selection would be a "waste of taxpayer money and court time ... because of these same prejudices that existed in the jury pool."

DNA testing showed Dail could not have been the man who raped a 12-year-old girl after climbing through the window of her home in Jefferson Park on Sept. 4, 1987.

When Dail was convicted in 1989, DNA testing was not an approved method of identification.

Dail's attorney, Chris Mumma of the N.C. Innocence Project, has long contended that police already had matched the DNA to another man, using a semen spot on the 12-year-old girl's nightgown.

The nightgown was part of a parcel of evidence that would have been destroyed under state evidence rules. A now-deceased detective saved evidence in the Dail case for reasons unknown.

Police, however, have not officially said that the DNA evidence collected from the nightgown matches Neal, contending that any such evidence would be presented in court.

Neal, already serving an active prison term on primary charges of admitted status as an habitual felon and for breaking and entering, has an extensive history of convictions -- mostly on charges of breaking and entering, according to state Department of Correction records.

Jones, the senior resident Superior Court judge for Wayne County, said he needed more time to review both the motion to move the trial and other matters before the court.

A decision is expected sometime after 11 a.m. today.