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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Judge denies Lytle trial venue change

Publicity not sufficient to grant request, he says

Jonathan Lytle likely can get a fair trial in Spokane despite extensive news coverage of the alleged homicide by abuse of his 4-year-old daughter, a Spokane County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

Judge Michael P. Price denied a change of venue request by Lytle’s court-appointed lawyers. The ruling is provisional and the trial could be moved if an impartial jury can’t be chosen for Lytle’s Oct. 13 trial, Price said in his oral ruling.

Lytle’s daughter, Summer Phelps, died last year after being repeatedly beaten, bitten and tortured. The girl’s stepmother, Adriana Lytle, pleaded guilty in July to a charge of homicide by abuse, but she won’t be sentenced until after Jonathan Lytle’s trial.

In denying the change of venue, Price cited the recent trial of Clifford Helm, the Deer Park businessman accused of vehicular homicide in the deaths of five children, as an example of an emotional case with extensive pre-trial publicity. A jury acquitted Helm in March after a three-week trial.

Price also said he consulted other judges who’ve dealt with important change-of-venue decisions.

A greater hurdle in Lytle’s trial than the pre-trial publicity will be finding jurors “who can listen to facts in the death of a child,” Price said.

“It’s clear that the facts in this case are extremely sad … more than the average juror would hear,” Price added.

Edward Carroll, one of Lytle’s attorneys, argued that a barrage of publicity – including The Spokesman-Review’s child abuse series “Our Kids, Our Business” – has tainted the Spokane County jury pool by associating pervasive child abuse with their client. Lytle’s right to an “impartial and indifferent” jury necessitates moving the trial or bringing in a West Side jury, Carroll said.

“Surely there can be no more gut-wrenching charge than the crime of killing one’s own child,” Carroll said. “It’s a critical, high profile, nasty case, and he desperately needs a jury that hasn’t had this exposure.”

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz called the motion “premature and speculative.”

Spokane County has 335,000 potential jurors and the judge will direct the impaneled jury to disregard media accounts of Summer Phelps’ death, Steinmetz said.

The best process is to move forward and attempt to impanel a jury, Steinmetz said.

“If we can’t, then the court has other alternatives,” he noted.

On Monday, after a daylong mental competency hearing, Price ruled Lytle is mentally competent to stand trial.

Contact Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or karend@spokesman.com.
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