WICHITA COUNTY (KFDX/KJTL) — The Wichita County District Attorney’s Office responded to a motion made to change the venue of an impending trial for the murder of a Wichita Falls toddler in 2018, saying the defense does not meet their burden of proof that a venue change is necessary.
The legal team for James Irvin Staley, III, the man accused of 2-year-old Wilder McDaniel’s murder in October 2018, requested a change of venue in January 2022 during a pretrial hearing.
Another change of venue hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, June 21, 2022, but was canceled due to an illness among the defense team.
Court officials said a decision on the change of venue for Staley is not expected this week due to the illness on the defense team.
Staley’s attorney on Tuesday submitted a legal brief summarizing their argument for a change of venue to Senior District Judge Everett Young of Tarrant County, the fourth judge assigned after the first three recused themselves for various reasons.
In their 324-page supplemental response, most of which includes transcripts of testimonies given at previous hearings, the D.A.’s office lays out why the defense’s argument that a fair and impartial trial can’t happen in Wichita County falls short.
In their response, the prosecution states “a defendant seeking a change of venue bears a ‘heavy’ burden to prove the basis for the change”.
The prosecution said the defense had to prove that prejudice has arisen from pretrial publicity and a combination of powerful persons.
According to the prosecution’s response, the defense failed to do either.
The prosecution said the defendant must be able to show that pretrial publicity is pervasive, prejudicial, and inflammatory and that widespread publicity by itself is not inherently prejudicial.
The response referenced the decision Buntion v. State from 2016, which said “Jurors need not be ‘totally ignorant’ of the facts of a particular case in order to hold a fair trial.”
Staley’s lawyers said the case has received more extensive and prejudicial coverage and social media coverage than any local case in years.
However, the prosecution referenced six high-profile cases in which a fair trial was given despite the massive amount of media coverage, including the following:
- Migel Matthew — Convicted of felony murder for killing a four-year-old while driving drunk
- Michael Corey — Convicted of continuous sexual abuse of three children
- Sara Woody — Defendant in a notable and sensational child-torture case
- Domanic Thrasher — Murder victim and former high school football star for which two defendants, Blayne Brooks and Justin Love, were tried
- Jason Carlile — Child-sex defendant whose case garnered “a great deal of media publicity”
- Benjamin Prince — Defendant in the bludgeoning of a 2-year-old and murder of the child’s cousin by shooting them in the head
An investigator with the Wichita County D.A.’s office testified that “none of those cases had been reversed on appeal for seating a jury in Wichita County”, and that the Wilder McDaniel case has not been “a whole lot different” than those in terms of pretrial publicity.
In a May 2022 hearing, defense attorneys said news conferences called by the police and Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie also added to the intense interest in the case and that Gillespie made improper statements and released information still under investigation.
Wichita Falls Police Department Chief Manuel Borrego testified it is not uncommon to hold a news conference on arrests in major cases.
Chief Borrego also pointed out that an incident involving Staley’s house being vandalized happened just weeks after Wilder McDaniel’s death before significant and extensive media coverage began.
The defense also questioned several witnesses about the “Justice For Wilder” campaign.
Multiple witnesses said they’ve seen fewer signs, stickers, t-shirts, and placards in recent months than they did around the time of Wilder’s death.
One witness from Wichita County went so far as to say they’d never heard of the campaign at all and had no knowledge of the case.
Further testimony from previous hearings indicates that signs, Facebook followers, and those following this case closely are all over the state of Texas, not just in Wichita County.
The prosecution also said the defense failed to meet their “heavy” burden of proof in regard to a dangerous combination against him instigated by influential persons.
The defense alleged in their brief submitted Tuesday “Bubba McDaniel is a very violent man”, and mentions a time when McDaniel testified in open court he would commit acts of violence against Staley.
Staley’s attorney also referenced an incident that took place weeks after Wilder’s death in which McDaniel was arrested after threatening Staley on social media and offered to “pay $10,000 to anyone who could provide him with Staley’s whereabouts.”
While on the stand, McDaniel said that although he does have a large following due to his history with Ultimate Fighter and having over 4,000 Facebook friends, he said a great deal of them live outside of Wichita County.
A Wichita County public defender testified that although the atmosphere has been charged, there has not been a single incident of violence in the courtroom or courthouse in the past three settings, nor has anyone been in fear of their safety.
Further, one of Staley’s attorneys said from the stand that if the venue is moved to a different county, “Bubba’s got a right to come there.”