Tom Noe change of venue unlikely, despite ‘unceasing’ Blade coverageWritten by Tony Gonzalez | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Prejudicial and unprecedented.”
Tom Noe’s defense attorneys used these words when they filed for a change of venue May 18. The brunt of the defense’s motion argues the quantity and nature of reporting by The Blade and other local media taint a potential Lucas County jury.
Noe faces theft and money laundering charges stemming from a state investment in rare coins. The charge carries a sentence of
10 years in prison if Noe is convicted. Noe has pleaded not guilty to
53 state charges related to his handling of the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s $50 million investment. He faces separate federal charges he illegally funneled contributions to President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. He has pleaded not guilty but is scheduled to change his plea at a hearing May 31.
The defense motion describes Blade coverage, which it says includes 755 articles, stories, editorials and letters to the editor between April 1, 2005 and May 17 as “sensationalistic,” “tainted” and a “written assault.”
“It is none of those, and has been accurate,” Blade Assistant Managing Editor Luann Sharp said. “It has made a lot of difference and helped the public in a lot of ways. It’s the court’s job to see if we provided too much information.”
Sharp said she does not recall a story with as much coverage.
“We’ve done a lot of investigative stories that take many days,” Sharp said. “This one was unusual because it resulted in two parts. I can’t remember [a story] that involved such unusual linkage with one individual … but every story is different.”
Sharp said The Blade’s reputation has not been harmed.
“We report the news,” she said. “We’ve had no requests for any corrections on our stories. Everything has held up to very intense scrutiny by everyone. We stand by all of our stories and if [Noe’s attorneys] feel there is error, they need to request corrections.”
The motion claims The Blade turned Noe’s name into “an epithet … [using it as a shorthand] for corruption or vice,” and claims media made a habit of writing stories describing Noe’s life in the language of “cloak and dagger thrillers.”
Blade ombudsman Jack Lessenberry disputed the statement concerning “cloak and dagger thrillers,” but said, “One could argue the whole scandal and bizarre coin deal does sound like a 1930s crime mystery.”
Lessenberry said if Noe is found guilty, Noe is solely responsible for turning his name into an epithet.
“I see no reason to fault The Blade for any reason,” Lessenberry said.
Noe’s Columbus-based attorney, William C. Wilkinson, declined comment on the pending motion, but said neither the prosecution, nor defense, has finished filing motions.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said she will soon file a counter motion before Judge Thomas J. Osowik rules on the location of the trial.
Although Osowik declined comment, his criminal bailiff, Tanya Butler, said the judge would make a decision fairly quickly, after reading the defense’s motion, the prosecutors’ response and case law.
“The [prosecution] will respond within two to four weeks — [Osowik] would make a decision fairly quickly,” Butler said.
News directors Steve France of FOXToledo and Mitch Jacob of WTOL scoffed at the motion’s inclusion of television media as a reason to change the trial’s venue.
“They’ll be able to seat a jury here,” Jacob said. “I’d be shocked if it were moved.”
The motion cited five television news examples of “prejudicial,” “negative” media, four focused on WUPW.
“I read it and had a pretty good laugh,” France said of the motion. “The stories they mentioned were pretty much wire stories that everyone covered. If anything, we were laid-back about him, compared to the other stations.
“I think our coverage is equal to anyone else we would have done in a similar situation. We probably gave him the benefit of the doubt longer than the other guys did, only because at the time we were working on his wife [Bernadette]’s show, which was close to production. We waited to the point where it was out of control and we’ve been with it ever since.”
France and Sharp said their respective news organizations would cover the story wherever the trial occurs.
Some law professors at the UT College of Law do not believe Osowik will grant the change of venue.
Daniel J. Steinbock, Harold A. Anderson professor of law and values, said venue change motions rarely succeed. He said two reasons add to the unlikeness of this motion. First, the defense did not conduct a Lucas County opinion poll for the motion, which could have supported their argument. Second, the judge could deny the motion now and move the trial later if the jury selection process proves difficult.
Jurors may be eliminated if circumstances do not allow they sit for the length of a long criminal trial, or if the judge does not believe they can view evidence with an open mind. Attorneys question jurors directly and with as much candor as possible, said David Harris, Balk professor of law and values at UT.
According to Steinbock, attorneys can use four pre-emptory challenges to knock potential jurors out.
“As a device to keep bias jurors off the jury panel, [challenges] are not tremendously effective,” Steinbock said.
Steinbock said jurors who have read Blade stories or watched television news won’t likely be disqualified for cause, unless a prospective juror demonstrates a formed opinioned as to Noe’s guilt or innocence.
“It’s true Noe has gotten a lot of media attention here, but people might not understand the evidence in the case,” Steinbock said. “It’s a big step to go from the fact you know Noe has been charged with some form of financial fraud to having an opinion on his guilt. The evidence is complicated, following hundreds of financial transactions. To presume the jury has reached a conclusion about the evidence is something of a leap.”
Harris said he doubts the motion will pass, and cited the Enron trial as example of the difficulty in changing venues.
“They basically screwed thousands of people in Houston and the trial went on there,” Harris said.
Bates said the change of venue motion came prematurely.
“We just finished a rather high-profile, high-visibility case that had an inordinate amount of publicity, that had jurors deemed fair and impartial,” Bates said of the Father Gerald Robinson murder trial.
“We’re talking about a white-collar crime, so the stories were very intricate and involved, and the victim here is the state of Ohio,” Bates said. “I think that we’ll have to wait.”
She also said the defense caused more publicity with a recent press conference.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, whose white-collar crimes attorney David Buchman will join Bates in the overlapping jurisdiction case, said U.S. Supreme Court precedent encourages interrogation of potential jurors before a judge grants a change of venue.
“Bring in potential jurors and interrogate them,” O’Brien said. “That process should go through.”
Osowik could later decide to move the trial.
Sympathy for Noe
John K. Hartman, a Central Michigan University professor of journalism who lives in Bowling Green, said The Blade’s reporting was an “outstanding example of journalism at the highest level,” although the coverage could create sympathy for Noe.
“I haven’t seen any evidence of [sympathy], but that doesn’t mean people aren’t picking up the paper saying, ‘I’m sick of this, quit picking on this individual,’ ” Hartman said.
The motion argues press coverage went “beyond the mere reportage of events relating to the current prosecution. Rather, hundreds of articles have been written examining Thomas Noe’s personal life, his character, his finances, his family, his friends, and his political activities.”
Lessenberry said The Blade’s coverage of Noe’s wife, Bernadette, remains relevant.
“I think if they [The Blade] were writing stories about his 3-year-old daughter, if he had one, that would be a legitimate point,” Lessenberry said. “But she’s [Bernadette] an active Republican operative.”
Paul Many, journalism professor at UT, said The Blade’s reporting “seems like a pretty standard and laudatory practice.”
“When the Noe case first came out, the attorney general and the auditor were not very interested. The Blade was striving to make a case for Noe’s alleged dealings; they probably thought they had to make and continue to make the case,” Many said. “As the allegations build up, it causes public officials to take notice of it.”
France spoke similarly concerning the hesitation of media outlets when the story first broke.
“Numerous places thought The Blade was doing a hatchet job on him because he was a Republican and had a great reputation in the area, only to find out that possibly their accusations are all true and their reporters deserve an extra pat on the back for digging this up,” France said. “But again, you’re innocent until proven guilty in the court of law.”
France compared WUPW’s coverage to that of The Blade.
“Do we go out of our way to stalk him like The Blade does? No,” France said, referencing Blade reporters waiting near Noe’s car and in elevators. “Do we deliver accurate information? Yes.”
A future lawsuit?
In statements to Toledo Free Press in April 2005, Noe said he was considering action against The Blade.
Attorney Wilkinson would neither confirm nor deny the change of venue motion lays the groundwork for a future lawsuit against The Blade.