FRONT ROYAL – A man charged with killing his girlfriend’s young son and injuring the boy’s twin wants a judge to move his trial out of Warren County.
Chad Andrew Ritchie stands charged with second-degree murder for the death of Tabitha Rose Zimmerman’s 22-month-old son. Ritchie, 28, of 908 Blue Mountain Road, also is charged with malicious wounding involving the victim’s twin brother and two counts of felony child cruelty.
A grand jury last month also indicted Zimmerman, 28, the mother of both children and Ritchie’s girlfriend, on two counts of felony child cruelty. Judge Clifford Athey Jr. last month scheduled each of the defendants’ cases for a jury trial to begin June 19. Athey scheduled a hearing on motions for today.
Ritchie’s attorney, Jason Ransom, filed a motion in Warren County Circuit Court last week asking a judge to move the trial to another jurisdiction. Ransom argued in the motion for a change of venue that the publicity attracted by the case has affected his client’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury. Extensive, pretrial publicity alone does not suffice to compel a court to move a trial to another jurisdiction, Ransom notes in the motion.
“The accused must show that the publicity so influenced the citizenry that a jury could not be seated free from bias created by the publicity,” the motion states. “In deciding whether a change of venue is warranted, it is pertinent whether the publicity concerning the case is factually accurate, temperate, and non-inflammatory.”
The Supreme Court emphasized in the case of Skilling v. United States that there are three factors in deciding if a jury venire could not be impartial: the size and characteristics of the community in which the crime occurred; whether news stories contained confessions or other blatantly prejudicial information of the type readers or viewers could not be expected to shut from sight; and the time between the widely reported crime and trial.
The case generated “extensive publicity” because it involved two very young children, one of whom died, Ransom states in the motion. Newspapers, radio and television stations and internet news agencies have published multiple articles describing the acts for which Ritchie is charged, the motion states. Ritchie goes on to list the dates of articles about the case published by the Northern Virginia Daily and other media outlets.
Ransom cites comments posted by readers on stories published online at nvdaily.com. Ransom states that the comments, as summarized, “demonstrate anger, hatred, prejudice, bias, and frustration towards the Defendant.”
“The Defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury will be violated by holding the trial in Warren County, because its citizens harbor such prejudice against the Defendant that it is reasonably certain he cannot receive a fair trial,” the motion states. “The news coverage, especially from the NVD, as evidenced by its public comments section, has irreparably poisoned the jury venire in Warren County.”
Ransom goes on to state that the Northern Virginia Daily coverage “has neither been thorough nor completely accurate.”
“For instance, its coverage mentioned that the Defendant admitted to assaulting the children, but it failed to mention when and how he assaulted the children, whether it was in jest, whether it was an isolated incident, or whether it was in fact an intentional assault that cause injury or death,” Ransom states. “The NVD failed to report the multiple witness statements that the children played hard, fought with each other, and were always bruised as a result thereof. The NVD failed to report evidence that was presented on the Defendant’s behalf at his five-hour preliminary hearing.”
Ransom states that the Northern Virginia Daily reported only information included in the “bare bones” criminal complaint, which the attorney says invites prejudgment from the jury pool of the defendant’s culpability. Ransom adds that coverage by media outlets include portions of documentary and hearsay evidence, the admissibility of which the court has not yet considered.
Ransom points out that Warren County has a population of 39,000 whereas 1.14 million people live in Fairfax County.
Ransom states in his motion to sever his client’s case from Zimmerman’s that the commonwealth likely intends to introduce into evidence the mother’s statements to law enforcement that she noticed a pattern of abuse by Ritchie toward the children. Ransom argues that this statement is inadmissible and allowing it into evidence at a joint trial would prejudice Ritchie. Should the court admit Zimmerman’s entire, un-redacted statement into evidence, a severance of the two cases is mandated, Ransom argued.
Additionally, Ransom states in the motion to sever that the stakes for his client are much higher than Zimmerman’s, given that his charges carry up to 70 years in prison if convicted, and therefore he should not have to share peremptory challenges with his co-defendant.
At their indictment by the grand jury last month, Zimmerman’s attorney John Bell invoked his client’s right to a speedy trial, pressuring Athey to schedule the proceeding within a five-month window. Since Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton advised the court he intended to try both cases together, Athey also needed to find suitable dates within that window. At the same time, Ransom told the court he would seek to sever the cases.
Ransom argues in the motion to sever that scheduling the trials for June gives him roughly three months to prepare to defend his client in case involving complicated medical issues.