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News >  Idaho

Judge rejects bid to move trial of Idaho teacher accused of killing puppy

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 16, 2018

Preston Junior High School teacher Robert Crosland is seen feeding a live rat to a turtle in his classroom in this 2005 photo. He faces a charge of animal cruelty after allegedly feeding a puppy to a snapping turtle. (Herald Journal)
Preston Junior High School teacher Robert Crosland is seen feeding a live rat to a turtle in his classroom in this 2005 photo. He faces a charge of animal cruelty after allegedly feeding a puppy to a snapping turtle. (Herald Journal)
By Shelbie Harris Idaho State Journal

PRESTON, Idaho — Despite the hundreds of thousands of people outside of this Franklin County city who think that a local biology teacher who allegedly fed a live puppy to a snapping turtle should be fired and held accountable for his actions, almost all of the citizens of Preston support the man, according to the Idaho attorney general’s office.

In his written brief supporting a recent motion to transfer the trial of Preston teacher Robert Crosland to another county or to at least pick jurors from outside of Franklin County, Idaho Deputy Attorney General David Morse said that nearly everyone in the Preston community supports Crosland, the teacher who has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor animal cruelty in connection to the puppy’s March death.

The Idaho State Journal obtained court documents regarding the Crosland case last week after submitting a public records request to Franklin County court officials.

Crosland is back teaching in the Preston School District this school year despite the criminal charge against him, his attorney said. Crosland was charged with animal cruelty in June.

The Idaho attorney general’s office said in the court documents that support for Crosland is so widespread in the Preston community that people there are raising money to help him pay for his legal defense.

“This office’s investigation has determined that almost all members of the community support (Crosland) and his actions,” Morse said in the written motion he submitted to District Judge David C. Hooste. “It is the state’s contention that seating an unbiased jury to fairly evaluate the facts of this case and applying those facts to the law will be a difficult task because of the community’s rallying cry to support Crosland and the unusual community support in this case.”

But Hooste wasn’t swayed by Morse’s change-of-venue arguments and ruled that Crosland will be tried at the Franklin County Courthouse in Preston next month.

Preston is a southeast Idaho community of about 5,300 people that until the Crosland case was most famous for the 2004 movie “Napoleon Dynamite” that was filmed in the area.

Morse said it would be extremely difficult to seat a jury in Franklin County due to the pretrial publicity of the case, the isolated nature of the Preston community and the “overwhelming and publicly expressed belief by members of the community that Crosland did nothing wrong.”

The story of Crosland, a biology teacher at Preston Junior High School, allegedly feeding a live puppy to a snapping turtle in front of a small group of students at the school went viral in March, receiving extensive state, national and international media coverage.

Such coverage has provided accurate and inaccurate accounts of the circumstances surrounding the events, Morse argued.

“Because Preston is a small community, all residents have likely read about, heard about or discussed this case with a friend, family member, significant other, witness or colleague,” Morse said. “These discussions have likely established and cemented opinions about the facts of the case and the perceived proper outcome before any of the evidence has been presented.”

Morse also mentioned numerous online comments posted by Preston community members referencing local support for Crosland as well as comments made by community members at Preston school board meetings supporting the teacher. Morse argued that, “These statements reflect the community’s unwavering support for Crosland and their desire for him to return to his daily duties as a teacher without being held legally accountable for his actions.”

Crosland’s attorney, Shane Reichert, of Pocatello, Idaho, told the Journal last week that Crosland is back in the classroom this school year teaching biology at Preston Junior High School despite the criminal charge against him.

In addition to the news coverage of the puppy’s death and the opinions of many in the Preston community, Morse cited two online petitions as evidence that it will be extremely difficult to select a fair and impartial jury in Franklin County.

The first is a petition calling for support of Crosland that had been signed by 3,910 individuals as of July 30. Morse, without providing any evidence, inferred in his argument that most of those supporters likely live in Franklin County. The second was a Care2 petition demanding that Crosland be fired that had received about 200,000 supporters.

Morse said that a sample size of 10,000 of the Care2 petition supporters showed that less than 1 percent of them were from Idaho.

Morse pointed out that Franklin County, as of March 1, 2017, had a population of 6,148 registered voters. He then said that if the 3,910 petition supporters are registered voters they would represent over 63.5 percent of the jury pool, which “means that it is likely that nearly two thirds” of potential jurors in the case “support (Crosland) and stand behind his actions.”

Morse said Crosland has deep ties to the Preston community, as evidenced by Franklin County Magistrate Judge Eric Hunn and Franklin County Prosecutor Vic Pearson both deciding to recuse themselves from the case because of their family members’ relationships with the teacher.

The Idaho attorney general’s office agreed to prosecute the case after Pearson recused himself.

Morse also said the Idaho attorney general’s office has received reports that Preston community members are saying Crosland will be found not guilty regardless of the facts of the case. The attorney general’s office has also received reports that Preston residents are raising money to help pay for Crosland’s legal defense and to pay any fines included in his sentence if he’s found guilty.

“While the notion is admirable, the inference is — once again — that the community will blindly support Crosland’s actions regardless of the facts,” Morse said.

Reichert submitted an objection to Morse’s motion on Sept. 4 arguing that not only is it against state statute to change the place of a trial in criminal misdemeanor cases, but in order for the court to even consider the motion, the prosecuting attorney is required to submit affidavits of at least two resident taxpayers in the county where the offense is alleged to have been committed that indicate that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in the county.

Morse did not include any supporting affidavits in his motion to change the trial’s venue.

Furthermore, Reichert argued the exact opposite of what Morse said regarding jury biases. Reichert said in his objection that Crosland would not receive a fair and impartial trial outside of Franklin County because most of the people outside of the county have publicly expressed the belief that Crosland is guilty.

As opposed to relocating the trial, the correct way to cure potential jury biases is through jury questionnaires, Reichert said.

Reichert cited a U.S. Supreme Court case in his argument that discusses what a trial court should do when publicity negatively impacts the defendant, including continuing the case until the threat subsides, working with the news media to ensure accurate information is being disseminated or transferring the trial to another county not so permeated by the publicity.

The problem is that with Crosland’s case almost every media outlet in Idaho covered the puppy incident and therefore no county in the state would be less permeated with publicity than the other, Reichert said.

“These cherry-picked articles attempt to show Franklin County’s bias in favor of Crosland,” Reichert wrote in regard to the articles submitted by Morse as evidence. “What the state fails to show is the bias against Crosland outside of Franklin County. The publicity surrounding this case has made it so that no matter the county (where) the case is heard, there will be biased individuals, bias against Crosland and bias for Crosland.”

By moving the trial outside of Franklin County, Reichert argued that Crosland would not be afforded the right to a jury trial of his peers granted to him by the state and federal constitutions.

After hearing both the motion requesting a change of venue and the objection, Hooste ruled in favor of Crosland on Tuesday, Reichert said, which means the teacher’s Oct. 26 jury trial will remain in Franklin County.

The Journal attempted to get additional comments from the Idaho attorney general’s office but officials there declined to comment.

If convicted of the animal cruelty charge, Crosland faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Reichert said Crosland’s innocence will be proven when the case goes to trial.

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