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Utah County jury to hear ex-Y. players’ trial

Lawyer who filed for venue change has withdrawn from case

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PROVO — A Utah Valley jury will be empaneled to hear the case of two former Brigham Young University football players accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl at a Provo apartment last August.

A request to move the Aug. 24 trial of players B.J. Mathis and Ibrahim Rashada to another part of Utah was dismissed Tuesday because the attorney who made the change-of-venue motion withdrew from the case — and the motion went with him.

The attorney had argued that because of BYU's pervasive influence in Utah County — an estimated 90 percent of which is populated by members of the LDS Church, the owner of BYU — the trial should be moved to another county.

A pre-trial conference was held Tuesday in 4th District Court, one day after ex-player Karland Bennett pleaded guilty to charges of obstructing justice and giving harmful material to a minor in exchange for the dismissal of all sexual assault charges filed against him.

Bennett and fellow former BYU players Mathis and Rashada were indicted by a grand jury in December of two counts of aggravated sexual assault, as well as three other lesser charges relating to the alleged gang rape. The indictment came after prosecutors obtained the testimony of a fourth player, William Turner Jr., who is being tried as a juvenile in exchange for that testimony.

The charges also come from claims by the girl, who said she went to an apartment, where she was allegedly given vodka and shown a pornographic DVD, then raped by multiple men.

Under Bennett's plea deal, he must testify at trial, telling how he was involved in making up a story to tell police and cleaning up evidence from the apartment. Turner already gave his testimony to prosecutors.

Bennett is only one of the witnesses for the prosecution.

Utah County prosecutors on Tuesday provided their list of witnesses to Judge Samuel McVey. Defense attorneys have until Friday to submit their own list, although the two will be very similar, said Jere Reneer, the only defense attorney not restricted by a court-issued gag order.

After studying the list, Reneer said, they will know what type of rebuttal witnesses they might need to defend Mathis and Rashada, the two players who have not struck deals with prosecutors.

The Utah County Attorney's Office has shared with the defense team all the evidence they have relating to the case, said Donna Kelly, deputy Utah County attorney.

However, information about separate allegations from Texas police is still in route. Police in Texas say Mathis is being investigated in two sexual assaults there — one in March and another while he was attending high school in 2003.

Once that information is received by the state, McVey ordered that the state share it with the defense. "We don't want any surprises to the defense," the judge said.

In return, Kelly also asked that defense attorneys provide notice by Friday of all evidence they will present at trial.

After the hearing, Reneer called the information from Texas nothing more than "spurious allegations. (The allegations) are easily refuted. It's just a really sinister attempt. They are intended to poison the jury pool."

Mathis and Rashada did not appear in court for the pre-trial conference — but had not signed promises to appear. However, Kelly said she wanted an official appearance from the two before the trial date so there could be an on-the-record discussion of the withdrawals of defense attorneys from the case. Instead, McVey ruled that a written waiver of counsel from both men, due Friday as well, would be acceptable.

There was talk of expanding the jury pool because of intense media scrutiny on the high-profile case. Normally, a pool might be 35 people, but McVey said they could look at as many as 65 or even 100 potential jurors to ensure a fair panel.

"We want to have a fair, capable jury," Reneer said. "I think we can accomplish that here."

E-MAIL: sisraelsen@desnews.com