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Jones' trial set for September; location still up in the air



If not here, where?

Lawyers discuss change of venue in Laurel murder case

HARTINGTON – A trial date has been set in September for a man accused of a quadruple murder in Laurel but where the trial will be has yet to be determined.

Lawyers argued a change of venue in Cedar County District Court here Thursday in the case against Jason Jones, 44, in the deaths of Gene Twiford, Janet Twiford, Dana Twiford and Michele Shankles-Ebeling, in Laurel Aug. 4, 2022.

Jones’ lawyer Todd Lancaster of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy argued extensive media coverage and potential jurors’ ties to the victims and witnesses would make it difficult for Jones to receive a fair trial in Cedar County.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case.

First responders were called to Shankles-Ebeling’s home at 209 Elm St., Laurel, around 3 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022, to the report of an explosion and house fire. About five hours later, local law enforcement on scene noticed smoke coming from the Twiford home just a few blocks away. Although the presence of smoke wasn’t evident for several hours, evidence suggests that the Twiford fire actually started first.

All of the victims were found to have gunshot wounds.

Jones was apprehended at his home the morning after the murders with severe burns over his body and was treated at a Lincoln hospital for several weeks before being released to the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

Responses on potential juror questionnaires indicated a bias against Jones, Lancaster said.

“There are a number of people, already in their mind, believe Mr. Jones is guilty,” he said. “They’ve formed an opinion and its so strong they expressed that to other people and they can’t set that aside. You match that with the number of people from Laurel who personally knew the victims in this case. Just from looking at these supplemental questionnaires, it will be impossible to pick a jury in this county.”

Prosecutor Candi Allen of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said picking a fair and impartial jury would be difficult but not impossible - the standard set forth by Nebraska law.

She said although media coverage has been extensive, she wouldn’t call it misleading or pervasive but “mere factual accounts that do not reflect animosity toward the defendant.”

Just because the crime happened in a small community in relation to the crime does not enough to warrant a change in venue, Allen argued, citing prior case law.

“To hold otherwise would mandate a change in venue anytime you had a community that was relatively small in proportion to the size and number of the victims,” she said. “If they’ve formed an opinion, can they set it aside and base it on what the evidence presented at trial is?

Once jurors are educated on the burden of proof and their role in the trial process, many are able to set aside any pre-determined opinion in the case, Allen said.

According to the standard set forth by law, the court must try to seat the jury in Cedar County, she said.

Lancaster said trying to pick a jury in Cedar County will take a week alone to suss out jurors stricken for cause.

“Will it be difficult? Yes. Is it going to be time consuming? Yes. Is it going to be tedious? Yes. But I don’t think time consuming, tedious and difficult is the standard we use to see if we can seat a trial or not,” Allen said. “I don’t know if it’s impossible. And for those reasons we’re not going to concede and we will leave it to the wisdom of the court.”

Lancaster submitted 14 exhibits with media articles including those from the Cedar County News and its affiliated newspapers: Randolph Times, Wausa Gazette, Laurel Advocate and Osmond Republican. Two exhibits which listed jurors’ names along with responses to juror questionnaires were sealed.

Judge Bryan Meismer will issue a ruling on the potential change of venue at a later time.

A change of venue brings up many logistics issues such as finding an available courtroom for the expected duration of the trial which is estimated at three weeks.

Allen’s wish is to keep the trial in the district if a change in venue is granted. She suggested a move to Washington or Dodge County may be an option. Dakota County may also be large enough to find a jury pool with less media exposure, she said.

Lancaster was opposed to a move to Dakota County because of extensive TV and newspaper coverage there.

He brought up his experience defending Jose Sandoval for his role in Norfolk’s U.S. Bank murder cases. In that case, Sandoval was granted a change of venue to Hall County. The jury was picked there and then driven 15 miles away to Aurora in Hamilton County.

“Aurora is a similar size and makeup as Cedar County and they have a large courtroom there and they don’t have a lot of cases there. Aurora, Hamilton County, might be a place we can move this jury to,” he said.

Allen pointed out the other defendants in the U.S. Bank murder cases were tried in Madison County and their subsequent convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawyers also argued a motion in liminie about whether or not prosecutors can include character evidence of the Twifords being churchgoers, Gene as a military veteran, and Dana as being disabled.

That evidence doesn’t have relevance but instead is trying to pull at the sympathies of the jurors, Lancaster said.


You can see more from this story in the next edition of the Cedar County News