A judge deferred a ruling Friday on whether to move former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman’s sexual assault trial from McLennan County, saying he wants to gauge if potential jurors have been swayed by publicity.
Oakman’s attorney, Alan Bennett, argued Friday that fallout from the Baylor sexual assault scandal, the trials of two former Baylor football players and the case against a Baylor former fraternity president have combined to create a “toxic environment” that will prevent Oakman from getting a fair trial in McLennan County.
Prosecutors Robert Moody and Gabe Price opposed the motion, telling 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother the decision should not hinge on the volume of news coverage or social media attention the case has gotten, it should hinge on the effect the attention has had on potential jurors and whether an impartial panel can be selected.
Strother has summoned 500 potential jurors to fill out questionnaires in Oakman’s case Feb. 15. He said he will wait to see the results of the questionnaires or he might wait to try to pick a jury Feb. 25 and gauge then if Oakman can get a fair trial in McLennan County.
Oakman, a former Baylor defensive end, was indicted on charges he sexually assaulted a Baylor student at his apartment in April 2016, after his football career at Baylor was over. He has said he dated the woman previously and that they had a consensual sexual encounter.
Oakman rejected a plea bargain from prosecutors that called for him to be placed on deferred probation in exchange for his guilty plea. Bennett said Oakman turned down the offer because he is not guilty and wants to clear his name in court.
Bennett called Waco attorneys Guy Cox and Dan Stokes as witnesses at Friday’s hearing. He also introduced 108 articles that appeared in the Tribune-Herald about the Baylor sex scandal, the Jacob Anderson case and the trials of former Baylor football players Tevin Elliott and Sam Ukwuachu. He also had lists of stories carried by local television stations.
Both Cox and Stokes testified that the extensive backlash against the DA’s office and Strother over the plea bargain reached in Anderson’s case could affect Oakman’s case because jurors might think Anderson’s deferred probation deal was too lenient and want to take it out on Oakman.
Anderson, former president of a Baylor fraternity, was charged with sexually assaulting a Baylor student. He pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint, and Strother accepted the plea bargain and placed him on deferred probation.
A resulting social media backlash and steady barrage of threatening and profane phone calls to Strother’s office and the DA’s office caused Strother to cancel a sexual assault case in his court the following week out of fairness to that defendant and the state.
Stokes was the attorney in that case and said he agreed the judge’s decision was warranted under the circumstances.
A subsequent petition drive at the University of Texas at Dallas, where Anderson was set to graduate in less than a week, preceded a decision by UT-Dallas administrators to kick Anderson off campus and revoke his acceptance into graduate school there.
“We respect the judge’s ruling and we will see if we can get a fair trial,” Bennett said after the hearing.
Moody and Price told the judge they spoke randomly to four members of a jury panel convened last week for an unrelated case and asked them about Oakman’s case. They were unaware of the facts of his case and had not formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence, the prosecutors said.
Waco attorney David Deaconson testified for the state that he has spoken with dozens of people in the past few weeks about Oakman’s case. Most said they needed more information about the case to form an opinion, he said.
Deaconson said he thinks Oakman can get a fair trial in Waco.