Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 6, 2014

Kirk seeks venue change

PRINCETON — A defense attorney for a former PikeView High School coach charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse involving students said Wednesday he may seek a change of venue in the case due to pre-trial media publicity.

Wayne Evans, defense counsel for Jonathan Kirk, 35, a former physical education teacher and coach at the high school, also made a motion during Wednesday’s pre-trial hearing for a severance of charges — or essentially having eight individual trials for Kirk. Evans argued that having all eight juvenile victims to testify against Kirk in one trial would be prejudicial to the defendant.

Citing several articles in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, including a Jan. 26 column by Daily Telegraph Editor Samantha Perry, Evans asked the court for permission to hire an outside expert who would be charged with examining the local jury pool to determine if Kirk can receive a fair trial in Mercer County due to what he described as “excessive” newspaper and television media coverage in the case. Depending upon the outcome of what the expert witness finds in his study, Evans said a change of venue could be requested for Kirk’s trial, which is currently scheduled for June 3.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler didn’t object to the request for an outside expert to examine the local jury pool. However, he said the state did object to a change of venue in the case because the court has not yet determined whether such a move would be appropriate.

Circuit Court Judge William Sadler set another status hearing in the case for May 19 at 2 p.m. Sadler said the court may also consider the change of venue request by the defense at that time.

In his motion seeking a severance, Evans said a seated jury would not be able to render a fair verdict in the case if all eight juvenile victims are allowed to testify against Kirk in a single trial. He petitioned the court for eight individual trials — or one trial per alleged victim.

“The key thing is the danger of unfair prejudice,” Evans said. “The jury is going to be influenced by the girls who testify as a group.”

Evans said some of the juvenile victims in the case are alleging one thing while others are alleging something else. Evans said the jury would be “overwhelmed by the sheer number” of alleged victims and may be tempted to reach a conclusion on the guilt or innocence of his client before even hearing from the first witness.

Sitler objected to the motion for a severance on behalf of the state.

“These are all students who were under his care,” Sitler said of the eight victims in the case. “They were all young women under the age of 18. These were all sexually-motivated (offenses). They are all closely related in time. They were all students in the same school under his care.”

Sadler said the court would take the request for a severance under advisement, and will issue a ruling at a later date.

Sadler rejected a proposed plea deal last month for Kirk. Sadler said the plea agreement didn’t take into account Kirk’s position as a teacher, and how that position allowed him to pressure the victims to do what he wanted them to do.

Under the rejected plea agreement, Kirk would have faced 20 years in prison with the possibility of being released within 10 years, Sitler said in an earlier interview. Kirk now faces 19 charges and a much lengthier prison sentence if convicted on all of the indictment counts.

Kirk was arrested in March 2013 and charged with 19 felony charges including multiple counts of use of obscene matter with intent to seduce a minor; use of minors in filming sexually explicit conduct; distribution and display to minors of obscene matter; sexual abuse by a parent or custodian; and soliciting a minor via computer.

Kirk pleaded guilty on Nov. 12, 2013, to six counts of distribution of obscene matter to a minor and one count of first-degree sexual abuse. The charges carry a maximum of five years in prison on each count.

Kirk admitted to sharing sexually explicit imagery with seven victims and touching one victim intimately, but more sexual contact was alleged in the indictment. Two victims alleged actual sexual conduct, according to Sitler.

In a previous report, Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police, said the majority of the charges stemmed from events that occurred on the school grounds and the alleged victims were female students between the ages of 16 and 18 years old.

Clemons said the investigation began in December 2012 when the administrators at PikeView High School received a complaint. The principal then contacted the Mercer County Board of Education, which contacted the West Virginia State Police. The alleged activities, which had been happening on Internet social media, had been going on since 2010.

Kirk was under suspension from the school until the investigation was completed, Clemons said. He resigned before the board of education could hold a hearing to see if the suspension would be upheld.

At the time of his arrest, Kirk was residing in Walton, a community in Roane County.

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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