Written by Kit Huffman
Several pre-trial motions were heard Wednesday morning in Rockbridge Circuit Court for the upcoming Aug. 25 trial of Nicholas Perry Hansel.
The former Washington and Lee student has been charged with a number of offenses, with the most serious being aggravated involuntary manslaughter. He’s also charged with two maiming offenses.
In the early hours of Dec. 3 last year, Hansel was driving an SUV back to Lexington containing 10 other W&L students after attending an off-campus party. The SUV overturned on Turkey Hill Road. Three students were hospitalized and Kelsey H. Durkin died of injuries sustained in the crash.
Hansel, who was released from jail on bond, was present in Judge Michael Irvine’s court Wednesday, along with three defense lawyers. Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert “Bucky” Joyce is prosecuting the case.
In one of the motions, Joyce requested that the jury, once selected, be transported to the scene of the accident in order to see for themselves the grade and topography of Turkey Hill Road, where the accident took place.
Judge Irvine ruled that he would take the transportation request under advisement, but he advised Joyce to have potential travel arrangements in place during the time of the trial.
A defense lawyer then made several motions, the first being for a change of venue for the trial. He said he was “concerned about the very substantial amount of publicity” the case has received, as well as the “broad issues about alcohol.” There had also been coverage regarding the W&L president, who had made a number of communications to the community, the lawyer said. He also cited a prior accident “alleged to be a similar event, as though there’s an ongoing problem.” He said the reporting may be accurate but that it’s by nature inflammatory.
But Joyce countered that “we’re in a fast-paced world and the collective memory is short,” and that he had “good confidence that we can seat a suitable jury.”
Judge Irvine said he must try to seat a jury (locally) but that he would take the motion under advisement. He also granted leave to the defense team to file any additional support for their motion.
The defense also moved for the chance to interview jury members individually in a sequestered setting in order to find how they felt about such issues as drinking and driving, young people and other “deeply personal issues, especially alcohol and substance abuse.” Joyce said other options are possible, such as interviewing smaller panels of jury members. Judge Irvine said he would take the defense motion under advisement, but that he anticipated a voir dire of the entire panel, though the smaller-panel option could be used, with panels of three or five, based on the proposed questions from the defense. He asked that the proposed voir dire be submitted seven days prior to the jury selection.
“I want both sides to get a fair trial,” Irvine declared.
Irvine denied a defense motion to submit a draft questionnaire to jurors to “streamline the process.” He said the court would conduct a very thorough voir dire to screen out people who know about the case, have preconceived biases or have connections to either side of the case. He felt the questionnaire would not be helpful and could be cumbersome and invasive.
The last motion filed by the defense concerned the showing of “prejudicial nature of the autopsy photographs.” Joyce confirmed that there are 55 autopsy photographs, “some of which are not attractive,” and that he had not thought to introduce them. However, if any became “probative as to the severity of the crash or the location of the person in the SUV,” then he might show these.
“The commonwealth is allowed to show the mechanism of death,” he ruled, though 55 photos would be too many to show. However, if photos are necessary to show the mechanism of death, then that would be done, he said. He did caution that there would be “no redundancy” in the showing of the photos.