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Cronquist trial will happen here: Judge denies change of venue request

When Tyler Cronquist appears before a jury of his peers next month to face murder and attempted murder charges, it will be in Crow Wing County. Cronquist's defense attorney Gregory Brooks Davis was unsuccessful in his motion to change the venue f...

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Tyler Allan Cronquist

When Tyler Cronquist appears before a jury of his peers next month to face murder and attempted murder charges, it will be in Crow Wing County.

Cronquist's defense attorney Gregory Brooks Davis was unsuccessful in his motion to change the venue for the upcoming trial. In an order denying Davis' request, Crow Wing County District Court Judge Erik J. Askegaard said pretrial publicity was mostly factual in nature and was not enough to taint a potential juror pool.

"It appears the Brainerd Dispatch reporters attempted to disseminate only factual news," Askegaard wrote. "It is clear that the reporters did not go out of their way to locate and publish any purported opinions of people who are supposed to know the facts, i.e. those in law enforcement and the legal community. Further, it is clear that the reporters did not go out of their way to attempt to convey any theme or imply any opinion that Mr. Cronquist is a criminal deserving to be convicted."

Cronquist, 25, faces charges of first-degree murder with premeditation and attempted first-degree murder with premeditation, both felonies. In January 2015, two victims-Joseph Kroll and Chelsey Crawford, both of Brainerd-were shot in the head in an apartment on the 800 block of Juniper Street in Brainerd. Both were airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. Kroll died as a result of the gunshot wound. Crawford survived.

In requesting a change of venue, Davis argued Brainerd Dispatch coverage of the shooting in the past 21 months would lead to a prejudiced jury if the trial remained in Crow Wing County. With a daily print circulation of 10,000 and Sunday distribution of 15,000, the Brainerd Dispatch is the heart of local news distribution in Crow Wing County, Davis said.

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"Although one expects a newspaper to publish articles, the extent and consistent prejudicial manner done so by the Dispatch has tainted the jury pool in Crow Wing," Davis wrote.

Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan, who is representing the state in the case, argued the newspaper coverage did not include opinion.

"The articles are purely factual informational in nature," Ryan wrote. "There are no expressions of opinions concerning the guilt of the defendant by public officials or the press."

In his denial, Askegaard said the vast majority of articles about Cronquist contained only factual information. Those that contained opinions concerning Cronquist's guilt or innocence were articles covering the trial of Nathan Becker, the man accused of aiding and abetting in the shootings, he said. During the trial, witnesses who testified offered opinions on Cronquist's guilt. Attorneys for the state and defense also characterized Cronquist as guilty in opening and closing statements. Becker was found not guilty on his charges following a May jury trial.

"When there are co-defendants being charged in two separate high-profile cases, and when one of the cases is tried first and the media reports on that first trial, the possibility that the news coverage of the first trial might taint the jury pool that will be convened to hear the second trial is obviously something that should be carefully considered," Askegaard wrote. "This would be so, even though the articles covering the first trial reported only factual news and even though the reporting was not improper or irresponsible in any way."

Askegaard said with this consideration in mind, he believed data supplied by Davis and Ryan supported the idea that a potential juror pool would not be significantly impacted by the opinions reported in these stories.

"There is a very strong possibility that a significant portion of the persons who will be summoned to be part of the petit juror pool for this case will indicate that they do not regularly access all significant news stories that appear in either the print or online version of the Brainerd Dispatch," Askegaard wrote. "This is not to suggest that the Brainerd Dispatch is anything other than a sound and reputable news source. Rather, there is a significant Crow Wing County population that does not reside in Brainerd/Baxter, and further, people today can and do get their news from a multitude of different sources.

"Additionally, even if a person may regularly receive the print version of the Dispatch, the online version or both, that does not mean that he or she has dutifully read, much less retained, each important article that has appeared in the paper."

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Askegaard said another consideration was the lapse of time since the majority of coverage concerning Cronquist appeared in the Brainerd Dispatch. The most frequent coverage occurred in the time immediately following the January 2015 shooting, and the last article referencing Cronquist-other than coverage of the change of venue request-occurred in mid-May.

Two other concerns raised by Davis were addressed by Askegaard in the order as well-whether the repeated use of Cronquist's booking photo and comments on the Brainerd Dispatch Facebook page contributed to prejudice among potential jurors. Askegaard said while he understood why Cronquist would be upset about the unflattering booking photos from the Crow Wing County Jail, the Dispatch was not out of line in using them.

"Using such photos is a common newspaper practice throughout the state," Askegaard said, noting the photos are both public data and factual in nature.

As for comments from Facebook users, Askegaard said it was unlikely a majority of the 14,000-plus users who "like" the page had read the articles or seen the comments.

"The Court does question the propriety of anyone hosting a social media site that would solicit random comments relating to a pending criminal case," Askegaard wrote. "That being said, while some of the comments people have posted on the Brainerd Dispatch Facebook page are troubling, the court does not believe the comments have received such an amount of exposure so as to create a pretrial publicity problem in this case."

Askegaard said even if potential jurors were exposed to Brainerd Dispatch articles and comments from readers on Facebook, this would still not be grounds for dismissal from the jury in and of itself. Potential jurors will be required to complete a questionnaire asking, in part, where they get their news, and will also be questioned one-by-one on whether they've read certain articles or engaged in Facebook activity.

"The test is whether the prospective juror will be able to set aside any impressions or opinions s/he may have preliminarily formed from the exposure, participate in the deliberation process solely based on the evidence that will be presented at trial and render an impartial verdict based solely on that evidence," Askegaard wrote.

Along with denying the change of venue request, Askegaard also denied a request to continue the matter to a later date. Jury selection for Cronquist's trial is set to begin Sept. 26. Askegaard did, however, grant a motion for an order "prohibiting the parties or their counsel from commenting on our discussing this matter with any publication or news outlet."

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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