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Trial of man who shot exchange student to stay in Missoula

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MISSOULA - District Judge Ed McLean has denied a motion to change the trial venue for Markus Kaarma, the Missoula man accused of fatally shooting a German exchange student in his garage last April.

In a 208-page motion to move the trial, Kaarma’s attorneys argued that local media reports have tainted Missoula’s jury pool by painting Kaarma as a “cold-blooded killer.”

Katie Lacny, who filed the motion, argued her 30-year-old client has been held captive in his Grant Creek home and received death threats as the media “aroused sympathies and created a community outcry against” him.

“The pretrial publicity has stirred up pervasive and strong passions of anger, hatred, indignation, revulsion and upset in such a manner that jurors chosen from Missoula County could not determine Markus’ guilt or innocence in a fair and unbiased manner. The coverage has been inflammatory,” she wrote.

Not so, ruled McLean.

In his decision, the judge said Kaarma’s attorneys failed to prove that news coverage was inflammatory or that it tainted public opinion to the extent that Kaarma cannot receive a fair trial.

Further, Kaarma’s attorneys will have the opportunity to screen and question prospective jurors before his deliberate homicide trial, scheduled for December, McLean wrote.

“While certain political figures may have used the case as an opportunity to curry favor with potential constituents, there are undoubtedly a number of others commenting in support of Kaarma,” McLean wrote. “Regardless, there has been no public outcry, campaigns to remove judges, angry mobs marching on the courthouse, biased statements by county attorneys and other individuals involved with this case such as in Coburn.”

McLean referenced the case Coburn vs. Bennett, employed by Kaarma’s defense as precedent for a change of venue in Kaarma’s case. In that case, Coburn was arrested for the sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl in Helena and the Independent Record published “seriously biased coverage” about the case, McLean wrote.

Coburn’s arrest and subsequent bond amount resulted in a demonstration by about 300 protesters who gathered on the courthouse lawn and “booed the judge when he arrived to speak with them.”

“Unlike Coburn … the publicity thus far in this case has been, by all accounts, factual in nature,” McLean wrote.

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Kaarma faces a felony count of deliberate homicide for shooting 17-year-old Diren Dede last April 27, when the exchange student entered Kaarma’s garage searching for alcohol.

His defense counsel, consisting of Lacny, Paul Ryan, Nate Holloway, Brian Smith and Lisa Kauffman, argue that Kaarma fired the shots in defense of his family.

But prosecutors claim the incident was premeditated. In a 19-page affidavit, prosecutors say Kaarma and his wife, Janelle Pflager, left the garage door open intentionally and left a purse inside the garage to bait intruders, who had burglarized their home in the weeks prior to the shooting.

The couple also set up a video monitor and motion sensors inside and outside of the garage.

When Dede entered the garage shortly after midnight, they were alerted to his presence by the video monitor. Kaarma allegedly grabbed a gun and exited the home through the front door.

According to prosecutors, Kaarma turned and faced the partially open garage door, and fired four shots into the darkness, two of which struck and killed Dede.

Prosecutors later charged Tristan Staber, 18, and another teenager, who is a minor, with burglarizing Kaarma’s home on at least one prior occasion. Both males said they had no connection with Dede.

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