Change of venue ordered for murder trial

Nichole Rice

The judge presiding over the murder trial of the Minot woman accused of murdering Anita Knutson in 2007 has granted a request by the defense and prosecution to seek a new venue after it was determined that a majority of potential jurors were prejudiced against the defendant.

District Judge Richard Hagar filed his order granting the change of venue for the jury trial of Nichole Rice, 36, Minot, on Friday after taking time to review the motion from both parties following a hearing on May 29. Rice’s attorney Philip Becher and Ward County Deputy State’s Attorney Tiffany Sorgen reviewed their respective analysis of responses to a questionnaire from 120 potential jurors in Ward County, which found that 70 of them should be dismissed. Both parties also presented that of the remaining 49, about half would likely be challenged for cause after direct questioning.

“While there would certainly be some overlap in those challenges, and not every challenge may be granted, it is still clear that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sit a fair and impartial jury,” Hagar said. “The extensive coverage of this case by local media in Ward County, along with its portrayal in a cable television documentary series, has created a situation where it will be extremely difficult to impanel a fair and impartial jury.”

Hagar said Knutson’s murder in June 2007 had inspired a great deal of publicity and speculation in Ward County, as no arrests were made, developing the characteristics of “a classic whodunit.”

With no charges being filed in the intervening 15 years, the case caught the attention of the true crime documentary program “Cold Justice.”

“A common theme amongst these responses in the juror questionnaires was that they had seen or had heard about the documentary ‘Cold Justice,’ both by jurors who believed Rice to be guilty, and those who claimed to have no opinion on her guilt. Although the Court is unfamiliar with the program and the contents of its episodes involving Knutson’s murder, the State and the Defense both indicate that it tends to point the finger at Rice as Knutson’s murder.” Hagar said.

Hagar agreed with the parties that prejudice against Rice exists in Ward County, saying that it was evident from the questionnaires that not only were some potential jurors aware of the events surrounding Knutson’s killing, some even referenced potential evidence that was likely to be introduced at trial.

It also was found that a large number of the jurors knew Rice and her husband through their activities in the community, and even more viewed Knutson as a sympathetic figure and had followed her case since its inception.

Hagar conceded that regardless of the jurisdiction the trial is moved to, there would likely still be media coverage of the trial, but stated it wouldn’t be as prominent or have the depth of the coverage the case has experienced in Ward County. Hagar highlighted Cass, Burleigh and Grand Forks Counties as viable venues, citing their larger populations and the increased chance of compiling a jury of individuals unlikely to have prior knowledge and exposure to the case.

Hagar concluded by saying the required factors had been satisfied based on his review of the situation, making the change of venue necessary to secure a fair trial for both parties.

“Considering the gravity of the offense Rice faces — the most severe in North Dakota — the Court’s paramount duty is to ensure a fair trial for both the prosecution and the defense. Safeguarding the constitutional principle of a fair trial is of utmost importance and should not be marginalized,” Hagar said.

Hagar ordered the proceedings be moved to a jurisdiction outside of Ward County and that court personnel move quickly to secure trial dates as soon as possible once an appropriate venue has been located. The trial dates previously set on the court calendar will now be continued, but the terms and conditions of Rice’s bail shall remain unchanged.


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