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Longtime local attorney reacts to change of venue in Kristin Smart murder trial

Media coverage was a major factor in the judge's decision to move the court case
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Posted at 4:22 PM, Mar 30, 2022

A longtime Central Coast defense attorney says he's not surprised by a judge's decision to grant a change of venue request in the Kristin Smart murder trial.

On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen agreed with the defense that there's a reasonable likelihood that Paul and Ruben Flores will not receive a fair and impartial trial in San Luis Obispo County.

Paul Flores is charged with Smart's murder. His father, Ruben, is charged as an accessory after the fact, accused of helping hide the body.

Paul Flores and Kristin Smart were Cal Poly students when Smart disappeared in 1996. Flores was the last person to be seen with her as they walked back to the dorms from an off-campus party.

After more than 25 years, the extent of media coverage focused on Smart's disappearance was a major factor in the judge's decision to move the murder trial to another county.

"I don't think either side would dispute that this is probably one of the most highly publicized, the most highly covered cases in San Luis Obispo County's history due in part to the fact it has been in the news for more than 25 years," Judge van Rooyen said. "We're not talking about a handful or even a few dozen articles. This case has been the focus of intense local scrutiny and interest for decades and that interest has only increased over time. It has not waned."

Typically, criminal cases are decided in the county where the alleged crime was committed, but the law also allows a defendant to ask for that trial to be moved under certain circumstances.

KSBY News anchor Richard Gearhart spoke with San Luis Obispo-based defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu following the judge's decision on Wednesday.

"The constitution also requires that the defendant receive a fair trial and a fair trial amongst his/her peers, and if that cannot be guaranteed, then the venue must be changed," he said.

Funke-Bilu does not represent either of the defendants in the Smart case; however, he has been successful in getting a case moved out of the county.

He says it's not a decision a judge takes lightly.

"I think the reason why, [in] this case, it was granted, which is unusual in my opinion, was because of the long-term ingrained nature of the publicity," he said.

Judges look at several issues, but what weighed heavily, in this case, is whether potential jurors would be able to discount what they already know about the victim and defendants.

Funke-Bilu says even though this case has had national media attention, residents of San Luis Obispo County have been hearing about it for more than a quarter of a century, so he wasn't surprised by the judge's decision.

"It wasn't just a couple of years, it was literally, virtually a generation," he said. "It's almost become a product of growing up in San Luis Obispo County."

The next steps in the case will be to find a county that both the prosecution and defense can agree on and a county that is willing to take the case.

The attorneys and likely the judge will follow the case to the new location.