A Dukes County superior court judge Friday denied a change of venue for the upcoming trial of a Vineyard Haven man accused of rape and soliciting the murder of a prosecutor, with the defendant’s lawyer arguing that news coverage of the case would prevent a fair trial.
David L. Thrift, 30, was in the Edgartown courthouse Friday while his lawyer, Robert Hofmann, argued for a change of venue before the Hon. Cornelius J. Moriarty 2nd. Mr. Thrift, who is facing 10 charges including rape, from a July 2011 Vineyard Haven incident, was also arraigned and pleaded not guilty Friday on four additional charges, including soliciting the murder of one of his victims and a state prosecutor.
Arguing for the change of venue, Mr. Hofmann said news reports and online reader comments are “indicative of just how pervasive the prejudice against Mr. Thrift is in this community.” He said online comments have become part of media coverage and public perception.
Mr. Hofmann mentioned coverage in the Vineyard Gazette, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, and the Cape Cod Times, and requested the trial move outside of Dukes and Barnstable counties, saying he had “every reason to believe [media coverage] is not going to get better.”
The attorney said he feared it will be “difficult, if not impossible, for Mr. Thrift to get a fair trial.”
He suggested Bristol County as a potential place to hold a trial, and said a change in venue would protect the rights of Mr. Thrift.
Mr. Thrift is facing 10 charges from July 2011: rape of a child with force, aggravated rape, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault with a dangerous weapon, violation of an abuse prevention order, three charges of assault and battery and two charges of intimidation of a witness.
He was already under an abuse prevention order when his wife called the police late on July 23 to report that he had attacked her, according to the police report. The couple, their three young daughters and a 15-year-old female had spent the day on the beach, where Mr. Thrift had been drinking, according to statements recounted in the police report. All had gone to bed when the mother was called to the teenager’s room, where she found her husband. Confronted, he assaulted his wife, according to the report.
Police saw a shirtless man fleeing from the house, and after taking the wife’s statement, took her to the hospital and began searching for Mr. Thrift.
Meanwhile, Mr. Thrift returned to the house and, according to statements given to police, raped the teenager at knife point. Police found Mr. Thrift at his home and arrested him.
In November, Tisbury police Sgt. Robert Fiske, the officer in charge when police responded to the scene, was dismissed from his job.
“Of particular concern to me . . . is that some of the news coverage involved the police handling of the investigation,” Mr. Hofmann said Friday, adding that this seemed to create a presumption that “mishandling by the police allowed these allegations to in fact happen.”
Prosecutor Kate B. MacDougall, an Essex county assistant district attorney, noted that the bar for changing venue is high, and that she’s recently been able to find juries in cases with “enormous publicity.” She said she found the motion premature.
Judge Moriarty dismissed Mr. Hofmann’s motion without prejudice. “I understand why you filed the motion when you did,” he told Mr. Hofmann. “I will tell you that I think that there is a profound public interest in having cases tried in the venue where the crimes were allegedly conducted.”
He cautioned against overestimating public knowledge and said jury selection would be key, adding that the issue would be dealt with later if it turned out to be a problem.
In May, Mr. Thrift was indicted by a Dukes County grand jury on two counts of solicitation to commit a felony as well as charges of aggravated rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child with force.
Mr. Thrift, who has been held at the Barnstable county correctional facility, was arraigned and pleaded not guilty Friday to the additional charges. Bail was kept at $60,000.
An Oct. 7 trial date has been scheduled, although it was unclear if the solicitation charges would be tried at that time.