SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, Calif. – The high-profile trial for the murder of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart will be moved out of San Luis Obispo County.
San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen made the decision Wednesday morning, granting a motion that was filed by the Paul Flores defense team last month.
Flores is accused of killing Smart in May 1996. His defense team filed a change of venue motion on March 9, arguing that a fair and impartial trial could not happen in San Luis Obispo County.
The District Attorney's office officially filed its opposition to the change of venue motion last week.
"Based on the nature and the extent of the media coverage in large part the court finds unbalanced, there is a reasonable likelihood that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in this county, and so the motion for change of venue is granted," said van Rooyen during his ruling.
The change of venue hearing was scheduled to be open for the public to attend. However, it was switched to an online-only format and was live streamed via Zoom.
For several minutes, both the defense and prosecution made final arguments before van Rooyen.
During his presentation, defense attorney Robert Sanger stressed the extensive media coverage of the case would make it impossible for Flores to receive a fair trial in the county.
"I think it's pretty clear that it would be extremely dangerous to try and have a trial in this county," said Sanger. "I think the reasonable likelihood, which is what we need to show, is that there would be an impairment to a fair trial."
He added news about the case has been widespread for more than 25 years, and has gone far beyond traditional media coverage, calling it "overwhelming" multiple times.
"The publicity has not only been through news stories, but it's also been through, what I sometimes call infotainment," said Sanger. "Through the podcasters, but it's also been promoted by billboards and webpages, websites, and ultimately by the Sheriff (Ian Parkinson) himself, who, you know, had press conferences, who invited the press along for his searches, so they can photograph it and invited them to the arrests and made statements."
He also said media coverage has always zeroed solely upon Flores as the main suspect from the very start of the case.
"In addition to being overwhelming publicity, it has focused on Paul Flores, and on Ruben Flores, and on Susan Flores, for that matter," said Sanger, referring to Flores's parents. "To the extent where there has been harassment. They had to get restraining orders. There's all sorts of things that have gone over time over the years, and we refer to those."
Flores' father, Ruben Flores, is also charged as an accessory to the crime.
Ruben Flores' defense attorney Harold Mesick spoke briefly and and echoed Sanger's comments that media coverage and speculation about Paul Flores has been unfair and influenced the jury pool.
"In this county, the notoriety has only been one way," said Mesick. "It's been 100 percent towards guilt. If the notoriety had brought up the presumption of innocence, and some opposing arguments, something that would counter this overwhelming publicity, I don't think it would be so important to move the trial, but because the publicity again has been so slanted, so again, they want to give him a fair trial and hang him at dawn, your honor, and I don't think staying in this county is going to be in the best interest of my client, and certainly not in the best interest of Paul Flores, and not in the best interest of justice."
Deputy District Attorney Crystal Seiler spoke on behalf of the prosecution and argued the defense had not met the criteria needed to change the venue.
"The defendants have not met their burden of demonstrating a reason likelihood that a fair and impartial trial could not be had in this county," said Seiler. "They bring before this court factual news coverage and a statement by an elected official that this is a big case, and asked the court to extrapolate, without evidence from that, that they people of San Luis Obispo County are therefore prejudiced against the defendants. This is speculation and speculation meets no legal burden under the law."
Seiler said the five factors that are required for a judge to consider moving a trial were not met, including nature and gravity of the offense, extent of news coverage, size of the community, status of the defendant and status of the victim.
"Based on the nature of the events, factual news coverage that has waned with time," said Seiler. "And no evidence that is has prejudiced the jury pool, based on the moderate size of our county, the lack of celebrity or outsider status of the defendants, and the lack of celebrity status of Kristin Smart, outside of the fact that she's the victim in this case, the jurors of San Luis Obispo County can provide a fair trial and the court should deny the motion at this time."
After arguments, van Rooyen quickly announced his ruling, saying he did not want to leave everyone anxious while waiting for the decision.
Van Rooyen carefully went through the five factors and how those impacted his decision. He spent much of his time speaking about the publicly surrounding the case and how that played a significant role in his ruling.
"In the court's view, this factor was heavily in favor of venue change," said van Rooyen. "I don't think either side would dispute that this is probably one of the most highly-publicized, most highly-covered cases in San Luis Obispo County's history due in part to the fact that it has been in the news for more than 25 years."
He agreed with Sanger in describing the extent of news coverage, especially the longevity of the case and how interest has continued to build.
"We're not talking about a handful or even a few dozen articles," said van Rooyen. This case has been the focus of intense local scrutiny and interest for decades and that interest has only increased over time. It has not waned, so the coverage has not been attenuated and its effects have not been blunted over time."
The judge also agreed with the defense opinion regarding negative media coverage towards Flores.
"From the very beginning, the attention has focused on Paul Flores," said van Rooyen. "The general tenor of the coverage has been whether and when there will be enough evidence to arrest and charge him. Much of that coverage has been factual, some of it has been speculative, or at least, quoted speculation."
He added media coverage has been so intense and widespread that San Luis Obispo County has reached a "saturation point."
"I think it would be very hard to find jurors in a community of this size who would not have had conversations about the case, and reached some sort of at least intuitive view of the facts as they've been presented in the media," said van Rooyen. "Based on the nature and the extent of the media coverage in large part the court finds unbalanced, there is a reasonable likelihood that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in this county, and so the motion for change of venue is granted."
The trial was scheduled to begin on April 25. However, with the change of venue ruling granted, the start will be pushed back to a much later time since it will likely take many months for a new location to be determined.
No potential sites were discussed.
A hearing was scheduled for Monday, April 4 at 8:30 a.m. for all sides to discuss the next steps in the case.