Defendant seeks out-of-county jury in death penalty murder case

April 3, 2014
Jordan Clemons, charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend, arrives at Washington County Courthouse for his preliminary hearing in February 2012. - Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The public defender for Jordan Clemons, charged with the homicide of his former girlfriend, Karissa Kunco of Pittsburgh, is seeking a change of venue for his September trial or an out-of-county jury.

In a hearing Thursday before Washington County Judge Katherine B. Emery, Deputy Public Defender Brian Gorman, who represents Clemons, 25, cited not only news coverage of the January 2012 homicide but also the formation of a group known as Karissa’s Army, which organizes rallies covered by media outlets and sponsors a Facebook page. A check of the page Thursday showed it has 4,263 “likes.”

Gorman called its social media presence “extraordinary” and said the high profile of the page will only increase as Clemons’ scheduled trial date draws nigh.

“It is an issue of regional attention,” Gorman claimed, necessitating the formation of a jury pool from outside the area so Clemons can receive a fair trial.

First Assistant District Attorney Chad Schneider noted that by September, about 30 months would have elapsed since the homicide. Additionally, Kunco, 21, was not a resident of Washington County. She lived in Baldwin, Allegheny County. Her body was found in a wooded area of Mt. Pleasant Township.

As to Karissa’s Army, Schneider said, “They speak to domestic violence and don’t prejudice Mr. Clemons.”

Observers in the courtroom filled about half the space, and at one point, five sheriffs’ deputies were present. Neither those attending Thursday’s hearing on behalf of the victim or the defendant wanted to comment.

“The advent of social media as being pervasive in the community is new,” Schneider said Thursday afternoon. “No distinction is drawn between social media and news outlets.”

In deciding if enough local jurors can be found to be empaneled for a case, a judge must examine “whether the community has been saturated with pretrial publicity and whether there has been any prejudice against the defendant in receiving a fair trial,” Schneider said after telling Emery neither a change of venue nor an out-of-county jury “would be warranted in this case.”

Gorman disagreed, saying that Clemons “is spoken of at public events and discussed at public forums” by Karissa’s Army.

Paul Petro of Donora, former Washington County first assistant district attorney, said Thursday that the last out-of-county jury to hear a capital case here sat in judgment on Roland Steele, who was convicted in January 1986 of the karate-style deaths of three elderly East Washington women.

Change of venue, which means a trial is convened in another county, rarely occurs because of expense.

The criminal charges against Clemons have not be the sole source of publicity about Clemons, who was the Observer-Reporter’s high school football player of the year in 2006 when he was a senior at Fort Cherry High School. He was also a leading rusher in the WPIAL that year, having run 1,888 yards in just 10 games.

Clemons, according to the playuer of the year, also attended Summit Academy in Butler County and Glen Mills schools, Delaware County, both schools for troubled youth referred by the courts.

In court Thursday, Schneider said Clemons was adjudicated as a juvenile on a felony charge of aggravated assault. The prosecution cited that and Clemons’ guilty pleas to two robbery charges as aggravated circumstances a jury should consider in the death penalty phase of his trial in the event he is convicted of first-degree murder.

The sides were also at odds about the ramifications of protection-from-abuse court orders Kunco sought in December 2011 against Clemons, whose has addresses in Pittsburgh and Canonsburg. Kunco told co-workers she was afraid of her former boyfriend and that she needed protection because Clemons had assaulted her. She was last seen alive Jan. 11, 2012 and her body was found a day later.

Gorman said Allegheny County authorities never served Clemons with the court orders. Schneider said it made no difference if the documents were never served, contending Clemons was aware of them.

Emery could rule as soon as next week on Clemons’ motions and she has also scheduled an additional pretrial hearing well before the September trial.

Clemons remains in the Washington County jail without bond.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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