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Preston judge denies survey in murder case, holds off on change of venue request

KINGWOOD – Preston Circuit Judge Steve Shaffer said he will wait until juror selection before deciding a request for change of venue in the trial of a Morgantown man accused of murder.

Shaffer’s recent ruling also denied Aaron Glenn Hoard’s request that a telephone survey be conducted to determine if he can receive a fair trial in Preston County.

Hoard is accused of first-degree murder in the November 2019 shooting death of Grant William Felton Jr., of Terra Alta, outside Shorthorn’s Saloon. At a hearing Jan. 7, Hoard’s attorney, Belinda Haynie, asked for the phone survey and change of venue.

At the hearing, Hanie presented information gathered by Orion Strategies. A researcher for the firm identified 106 media stories and social media postings about the case. Of those, 66 stories came from mainstream or specialty news sources, including The Dominion Post.

Also 39 mentions came from social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter. The judge noted that Haynie’s memorandum “states that a combined 15,800 ‘Likes, Shares and Retweets’ – presumably of the original 190 social media mentions – brings the media count and social media actions regarding the West Virginia case to 29,461.”

The judge said some of the social media attention is probably due to “Grant Felton’s Christmas for the Kids,” a local effort. However, Shaffer said, “those individuals are likely to have known the alleged victim and would therefore be unlikely juror candidates in the case anyway, despite the social media attention.”

The prosecution opposed the change of venue but not the survey. But Judge Shaffer expressed concern in his ruling that a telephone survey of 300 people requested by Haynie “will taint the jury pool.”

He said some people may not answer the call, others may answer and hang up before hearing much information, some will listen to the information and then hang up, some may partially complete the survey and others fully complete it.

“Thus, information in the survey will likely reach an unknown number of individuals far beyond the 300 responses sought,” Shaffer said. They will hear some information about the case, that it is a murder, and seek more information on their phones and computers, he wrote.

Shaffer concluded that while the case has received some publicity, at this time it’s not been proven there is “a present hostile sentiment” that would preclude Hoard from having a fair trial in Preston County.

He and attorneys for both sides will question potential jurors, Shaffer said. If the court can’t impanel a jury because of “present hostile sentiment” throughout Preston County, then he will reconsider the motion for change of venue.

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