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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ex-TSU president wants trial moved

Attorneys for former Texas Southern University President Priscilla Slade say media coverage has made finding a fair jury impossible in Harris County and want her upcoming felony trial on charges of misusing university funds moved elsewhere, possibly to Travis County.

They also want evidence seized at her home last year suppressed, saying officers overstepped their authority when taking items.

Slade is charged with two counts of misapplication of fiduciary property over $200,000. She denies the allegations. Jury selection is scheduled for Aug. 10.

"The trial needs to be moved because of pervasive negative publicity," said Mike DeGeurin, her attorney.

Prosecutors said a fair jury can be found.

"Harris County has a large jury pool and we can find 12 people who are unbiased in this case," said Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal.

Experts said change of venue requests are usually very difficult to obtain because they are costly and convincing judges that unbiased jurors can't be found is difficult.

"A lot people don't follow the news and know nothing about the case," said Sandra Guerra Thompson, law professor at the University of Houston Law Center. "And people who know a little about the case, will still under oath be able to tell a judge they can be fair."

Harris County is large enough, most judges think, that fair jurors are available, said Robert Hirschhorn, a jury consultant.

"The vast majority of judges believe," Hirschhorn said, "that in a city with 4 million people you can find 12 people who are unbiased."

Defense attorneys hired Richard Murray, a political scientist who directs surveys at the University of Houston Center for Public Policy.

The random sample of 85 potential jurors was conducted in late June. It included residents of Galveston County and about 25 people who live in Travis County.

"There's a lot of pre-knowledge here," Murray said of the Houston-Galveston area. "And a lot of it is negative. That case has a lot of resonance here. Travis County would provide a much more impartial jury."

Monday, Judge Thomas heard arguments regarding the defense motion to suppress evidence taken from Slade's home in the 200 block of Terrace Drive during a search May 19, 2006.

Defense attorneys state in their motion, filed June 20, that law enforcement officers overstepped the scope of the search warrant when they seized a laptop computer that was not named in the search warrant. They want information on the laptop and other items seized in the search suppressed.

Slade, 55, was fired in June 2006 after attorneys hired by the university concluded that she failed to follow university policies and state laws while spending more than $260,000.

A Harris County grand jury indicted Slade and three aides on allegations of misusing school money on personal expenses.

Quintin Wiggins was convicted of misapplication of fiduciary property over $200,000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May. Bruce Wilson's trial is scheduled for Sept. 28. Prosecutors had tried to delay or combine Frederick Holts' trial with Slade's but the judge denied their request and his case was was dismissed.

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