VERNAL — A judge has agreed to have the case of three men accused of raping a 9-year-old girl together be heard in a different county to ensure an impartial jury can be found.
In a ruling last month, 8th District Judge Clark McClellan granted a motion from defense attorneys asking that the trial be moved in light of extensive and impassioned public outcry against the three men in the case, as well as the small population in Uintah County.
Larson Rondeau, 37; Jerry Flatlip, 30; and Randall Flatlip, 27, are charged with rape of a child and sodomy on a child, first-degree felonies, after police say they took turns raping a 9-year-old girl while her mother did drugs in another room. They were ordered to stand trial on the charges following a preliminary hearing in July.
In a motion filed in October and argued in court in December, attorneys for the three men claimed that far-reaching and emotionally charged social media comments about the case, high-profile media coverage and strong opinions voiced in a survey of Vernal residents support moving the trial.
According to a motion filed by defense attorney Loni Deland, while the young girl allegedly victimized in the case elicits great sympathy, the same cannot be said for his client.
"Little elaboration is needed to understand that a 9-year old female victim, allegedly the victim of rape and sodomization by four adult men, holds benevolent standing in the community," DeLand said in his motion. "The accused, however, holds a much different standing in the community. He is a 26-year-old, drug-using male of Native American descent."
Social media comments about the case were overwhelmingly hostile toward the three men suspected of assaulting the girl, DeLand wrote, including threats that the men should be killed. Many of those comments are believed to have been posted by residents of Uintah County, according to the motion.
The motion noted that a Facebook post regarding the case by the Uintah County Sheriff's Office had 2,648 comments at the time the motion was filed, but more than 2,000 of those were hidden, potentially for violating the page's policy regarding profanity, threats or other "concerning vocabulary."
Additionally, a survey of 157 Vernal residents found that 90 percent of people said they knew about the case, 83 percent indicated they had negative feelings about the case, and 68 percent indicated they believe the three men are guilty, according to the motion.
Social media commentary and survey responses also indicated a possible resentment against the men because they are Native American, the motion states.
In a motion opposing the move, prosecutors argued the survey has no scientific validity.
In his decision, McClellan noted that while the statistical validity of the survey cannot be considered, it does illustrate a cross-section of opinions in the community. The judge also agreed that the public has a strong interest in protecting any 9-year-old alleged victim, and that the men charged in the case are perceived as "outsiders" in the area.
As for the vitriolic online response to the case, McClellan said there is little way of knowing whether comments are coming from within the potential jury pool, but the nature, number and apparent hostility in the comments — specifically on the post by the sheriff's office — provides some concern about the ability to seat a jury.
The judge noted that responses on the post prompted a statement from the sheriff's office, including a disclaimer that the office was not attempting to fuel hateful speech, and went on to call the alleged crime "shocking to the conscience" and express sympathy for the "outrage felt as a community and as human beings."
"Based on the fact that the Uintah County Sheriff's Office felt it necessary to post a statement on Facebook concerning the comments and took the opportunity to validate the reaction which was in its opinion extremely volatile, it is difficult to envision that a fair jury trial can be had in this county for even a single defendant, let alone three," the judge wrote.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors have agreed to have the case heard in Summit County. Dates for the trials, expected to take several days, have not been set.
While the three preliminary hearings and arguments to move the cases were held jointly, the defendants now face the criminal charges individually.
Charges against a fourth man, Josiah Rondeau, 20, were dismissed at a preliminary hearing because the girl's mother, a material witness, couldn't be located.
The woman was later found and pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse, reduced from a third-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor, for taking her daughter with her while intending to spend the weekend getting high, leading to the alleged rape. She was sentenced in October to serve 120 days in jail.