The Journal Gazette
Saturday, October 06, 2018 1:00 am

Hearing on moving Tinsley venue set

Defendant in slaying says fair trial here impossible

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

An Allen County judge could decide in December whether to move the trial for a man accused of sexually assaulting and killing 8-year-old April Tinsley in 1988.

John D. Miller asked in court documents filed by defense attorneys Anthony Churchward and Mark Thoma to move the trial, arguing he can't receive a fair trial in Allen County because of “public hostility against him,” “public outrage” over the alleged crime and “speculative opinions as to his guilt and character.”

Comments on social media say Miller is guilty and suggest punishments for him, a two-page motion for change of venue states.

Miller, 59, was in court Friday, and Judge John Surbeck scheduled a Dec. 7 hearing to consider the request.

The Grabill man was arrested at his home in July after investigators used information from a genealogy database and DNA evidence to tie him to the crime. He was in Allen Superior Court on Friday for a pretrial conference, where Churchward and Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Tom Chaille each said they are gathering information to prepare for the Feb. 11 trial.

Dressed in an orange-and-white striped jumpsuit, Miller sat next to his lawyers during the three minute hearing and did not speak.

Janet Tinsley, April's mother, was in court but did not speak with reporters after the hearing.

April was taken from her neighborhood on Fort Wayne's south side on April 1, 1988, and her body was found in a ditch in southern DeKalb County three days later. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Though police collected DNA at the crime scene and from samples left by someone claiming to be the killer in Fort Wayne and Grabill in 1990 and 2004, there was little movement in the case until this year. Fort Wayne police Detective Brian Martin arranged in May for genetic testing conducted by a Virginia company that analyzes DNA using public genealogy databases.

The DNA was uploaded to a website that allows users to input data and search for relatives using genetic codes. Police used that information to connect Miller to April's murder.

When investigators showed up at his home July 15, Miller allegedly confessed to forcing himself on the girl, killing her and dumping her body. He could face up to 100 years in prison if he is convicted.

Janet Tinsley has said she wants Miller to be executed, but prosecutors have not indicated whether they will seek the death penalty.

The case drew national attention and was featured often in local news stories and on popular broadcasts including the now-defunct “America's Most Wanted.”

Judges can move trials to other counties or allow jurors to be selected from other counties in certain situations, including when there is significant pretrial publicity.

Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull ruled this week jurors can be selected from Marion County for the trial of Marcus Dansby, who is facing the death penalty for allegedly killing four people in Fort Wayne in 2016. An order filed Monday cites evidence of “inflammatory and sensational” pretrial publicity and “public hostility and outrage” surrounding the case.

But the bar is set high for judges to approve requests for venue changes.

At least three requests similar to the motion Miller filed have been rejected in Allen County since January.

An attorney for Victor Rivera, 22 – charged with murder in the shooting death of a gas station clerk on Thanksgiving – argued in Jan. 24 his client could not be guaranteed a fair trial because of news coverage and threats made on social media. Surbeck denied the request in February.

Gull in June rejected a request for a change of venue from Amber Garrett, 27, who argued angry comments on social media and messages written in chalk outside the Allen County Courthouse could bias potential jurors.

“There has been no showing that there is, as a result of pretrial publicity or social media coverage, or any other reasons, a generalized pattern of deep and bitter hostility throughout the community that it will be unlikely an impartial jury can be selected,” Gull's order states.

Garrett is charged with two counts of felony neglect in the death of her son, 2-year-old Malakai Garrett, last year. 

Gull denied another request in February from a man accused of beating a toddler and firing a gun inside a home.

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