Walla Walla County judge denies change of venue for suspect in attack

Jacihel Contreras is set to go to trial next month on charges he shot two men in March.

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WALLA WALLA -- A judge has denied a defense motion to change the location for the trial of a man accused in a bloody, gang-related attack outside a residence on Center Street in March.

In a written opinion signed Monday, Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht ruled that the request to move the trial of Jacihel Contreras to another county was not justified due to the media coverage of the case.

Contreras is accused of wounding two men by shooting them. The defense claimed through its change-of-venue motion it appears Contreras cannot get a fair trial by a jury pool from Walla Walla County because of prejudicial, inflammatory pre-trial news coverage -- primarily by the Union-Bulletin.

Jury selection in Contreras' trial is set to begin Oct. 26.

Defense attorney C. Dale Slack argued at a Superior Court hearing Sept. 16 that the newspaper has printed unfair, one-sided stories about the assaults, with the only information originating from law enforcement and other government officials. Slack also claimed that because the U-B printed a comprehensive series in June about gangs, Contreras -- an alleged gang member -- can be perceived by readers as inherently violent.

"There is a real possibility there is prejudice in any jury panel we bring in," Slack said.

But Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joe Golden responded that jury selection should begin as planned in Walla Walla County and if many prospective panelists say they cannot be fair and impartial, the problem could be addressed then.

"This case is no different than any other case the U-B has written on," Golden said, adding the gang series didn't necessarily relate to the allegations against Contreras. Golden added that most prospective jurors in prior high-profile cases here have recalled only sketchy details of newspaper accounts of the crimes.

In his written ruling, Schacht said "there has been no showing of a reasonable or manifest probability of prejudice."

"The court finds that the pretrial publicity has been accurate and non-inflammatory," he wrote. "The court cannot find a massive, passionate, extensive media coverage of this alleged assault incident. Even considering the subsequent coverage consisting of several articles about gang involvement in the Walla Walla community, there was little or no mention of these current charges or this defendant."

Police say Contreras, 26, shot two men during the melee that broke out about 2:15 a.m. March 13 outside 1306 Center. He is charged with two counts of first-degree assault, in addition to one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm because he is a convicted felon. If convicted of the current charges, he could be sentenced to serve decades in prison.

Five men were stabbed, shot or both in the violence that broke out at a birthday party for a daughter of the woman renting the home. Contreras and co-defendant Fernando Saenz Jr. were attending the party and apparently confronted a group of men -- with no known gang affiliation -- when they dropped by to retrieve a coat for a woman who had left earlier, according to police.

Contreras allegedly was armed with a semiautomatic handgun and shot Alan Roblero, 22, and his brother, Osman Roblero, 21, police said.

Saenz, 23, is serving a 28 1/2-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in August to two counts of first-degree assault. He admitted stabbing Juan P. Robles, 22, and Luis Camargo, 42. Contreras also was stabbed, but officials believe that was by mistake.

Staff writer Andy Porter contributed to this story. Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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