Cooper’s motion for change of venue denied

Trial set to begin May 20 at Tama County Courthouse

The Tama County Courthouse. Karina Cooper's first degree murder trial is scheduled to begin in Tama County District Court on May 20, 2024. PHOTO COURTESY GOOGLE EARTH

TOLEDO – Karina Cooper’s motion for a change of venue has been denied by the judge without prejudice.

Following a hearing held by videoconference last week Tuesday, April 9, Chief District Court Judge Lars G. Anderson denied a motion by rural Traer resident Karina Sue Cooper, 46, to have her upcoming trial for first degree murder moved to another county.

Karina Cooper has been in jail since February 19 of this year on the single murder charge in connection to the death of her husband Ryan Cooper, 42, who was found deceased at the couple’s shared rural Traer residence in the early morning hours of June 18, 2021, after suffering a gunshot wound to the face.

During the April 9 change of venue hearing, Karina Cooper’s defense attorney Nichole Watt of the Waterloo Public Defender’s Office told Judge Anderson that her client’s primary reason for requesting the change of venue was not necessarily “pretrial publicity” by news articles so much as the “tone of the community in Tama County and their opinions on the case and whether or not Ms. Cooper is guilty of this charge.”

In support of the motion, the defense submitted several examples of social media posts made by area news outlets in the days following Ryan Cooper’s murder including a post by KWWL of his funeral procession which Watt said was shared over 100 times and viewed 47,000 times. Watt said the comments under such posts was troubling in terms of seating a fair and impartial jury.

A partial screenshot from Karina Cooper’s change of venue hearing held on April 9, 2024, by videoconference. Those pictured include (clockwise from top left) Chief District Court Judge Lars G. Anderson, Assistant Attorney General Michael Ringle, Attorney Nichole Watt of the Waterloo Public Defender’s Office, Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren, defense witness Chris Wilson, Karina Cooper, and the court reporter.

In addition, Watt said she was concerned about some of the state’s potential witnesses.

“So there’s going to be a good chance that we come into this trial, that jurors are going to know not only Ms. Cooper, not only Ryan Cooper but also the state’s potential witnesses. This is a small community where everybody does know everybody. It’s also important to note that this case was pending an investigation for over two-and-a-half years which only made the rumors run more wild.”

Watt also brought up a recording made by the State during an interview with a “potential witness” as further documentation of the need for a change of venue.

“On February 19, 2024, (Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation) Agent Trent Vileta … met with a potential witness, Carmen Erhardt, before Ms. Cooper was arrested – about a half hour before she was arrested and they had a conversation, and in that conversation, Agent Vileta says to Carmen Erhardt, ‘I think the county has a consensus of what happened in this case. All but maybe one or two people know what happened here,'” Watt said, quoting Vileta.

“If we have the case agent saying this to potential witnesses,” Watt continued, somewhat incredulously, “my assumption isn’t that they’re lying, it’s that the people investigating this case know that everybody in this county has an opinion on this case.”

Watt further said an investigator, Mark Sinnwell with the Waterloo Adult Public Defender’s Office, tried to speak with people “in town but not a lot of people want to talk to us because a lot of people do have opinions on this case, and so we didn’t get very far with that.”

Watt then called Christoper ‘Chris’ Wilson, a lifelong rural Traer resident and friend of both Karina Cooper and the late Ryan Cooper, as a witness to give “some testimony on the tone of the community in Tama County.”

“The last three weeks, me and my wife have just steered clear of town because everywhere we go, that’s all anybody wants to talk about anymore. … They already know more than what’s out there. It’s like everybody knows, without the answer,” Wilson said in response to a question about whether or not he has heard people talking about the case.

Watt also asked if Wilson was familiar with Carmen Erhardt to which he responded in the affirmative.

Watt ended her questioning by asking if he felt Karina Cooper “has a shot at a fair trial if it’s done in Tama County” to which Wilson simply said, “No.”

Argument was then turned over to Assistant Attorney General Michael Ringle, who said, in part, “It’s the State’s belief that at this point, yes, though there has been some talk in the community about the case [and] there’s been media coverage as well, nothing [rises] to the level” that would require a change of venue.

Judge Anderson then addressed Tama County’s relatively small population.

“If we’ve got a lot of witnesses from the community … I, too, have a concern that if we do get to jury selection, we’re going to run out of a lot of jurors for those kinds of reasons. If that’s likely to be the case, wouldn’t it make sense to just address that now?”

A few minutes later in answer to the judge’s question, Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren spoke up, telling the judge, in part, “Size is two different things. I think Tama County is probably number five in the state in terms of geographic size. … It’s not a small county geographically, it’s [small] in terms of population, yes. … I don’t know if someone from Chelsea, Iowa, has any idea what was going on in Traer. There is a kind of north-south divide in the county.”

As part of her final comments, Watt responded to Heeren, stating, “I understand that it’s a big geographic area but I don’t think we can just take people from Chelsea [for the jury] … And I have no idea what people in Chelsea know about the case at this point.”

In the written response to Karina Cooper’s motion, the State posited, “Mere exposure to news accounts does not prove a substantial likelihood of prejudice. … The sheer volume of coverage is not sufficient to mandate a change of venue.”

In response to the evidence Karina Cooper provided to support her motion, the State further wrote, “The articles and [social media] posts are brief, factual, and free from inflammatory content, and thus cannot be said to prejudice the defendant. The same is true of the press releases and requests for information posted by law enforcement.”

Judge Anderson’s ruling

In denying Karina Cooper’s request, Judge Anderson wrote “the submitted media coverage of this case, the information provided is not inflammatory. It has been bare bones and appears factual and devoid of inaccuracies, denunciations of Ms. Cooper, or overly emotional coverage.”

Judge Anderson then addressed the “tone of the community” – partially gleaned through social media comments – that Karina Cooper and her counsel cited.

“Most of the controlling Iowa case law regarding change of venue predates the proliferation of social media. Neither party cited any Iowa appellate cases that have addressed social media comments in the context of a request to change of venue. Many other courts have addressed comments and determined that social media comments do not support a change of venue.”

In regard to Chris Wilson’s testimony, Judge Anderson said it was “insufficient to establish the tone of the community in Tama County.”

Further, in terms of Tama County’s small population size and the difficulty such size could create in seating an impartial jury, Judge Anderson also rejected the argument, citing two Court of Appeals cases.

“Is it likely that some potential jurors in Tama County have fixed opinions about this case and would not be appropriate jurors? Yes, it is,” Judge Anderson admitted before later writing, “If, during jury selection, it appears that a fair and impartial jury cannot be selected, Ms. Cooper is free to renew her motion for a change of venue.”

As of press time, Karina Cooper remains behind bars at the Tama County Jail on a $1 million cash or surety bond. Her first degree murder trial is set to begin on May 20, 2024.