San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen on Wednesday announced the new venue for the Kristin Smart murder trial.
Judge Van Rooyen said there were discussions about two counties that could potentially take over the trial for Paul and Ruben Flores, but the decision came down to Monterey County.
Kristin Smart was a freshman at Cal Poly when she disappeared in 1996. She was last seen with fellow student Paul Flores.
Flores was arrested one year ago and charged with Smart’s murder. His father, Ruben, was also arrested and charged as an accessory, accused of helping hide Smart’s body.
Their defense attorneys filed a motion for a change of venue and it was granted on March 30.
A change of venue is a fairly uncommon request. According to the Judicial Council of California, between 2019 and 2021, there were only five petitions for a change of venue.
Trace Milan, a criminal defense attorney not affiliated with the Flores trial, said multiple factors play a role in deciding whether a trial should be transferred to another county.
“It is thought that the case is too well known that the citizens of that community have a preformed opinion, whether it's because something they heard in the news, something they heard at work, or church or school,” Milan explained. “The case is just well known here. People have heard about it, people have thought about it and have some kind of opinion about it before the case even begins in court.”
In the case of Smart’s murder, billboards, fundraisers and memorials have contributed to keeping the case in people's minds.
The defense argued the defendants likely would not get a fair trial in San Luis Obispo County because of that publicity and Judge Van Rooyen agreed.
The last time a trial was moved to another county was the case of Rex Krebs who was convicted of raping and killing two San Luis Obispo college students in 1998 and 1999.
That case was also sent to Monterey County.
As for what comes next in the process of changing the venue for the Paul and Ruben Flores trial, Milan said there are several options.
“The transferring county, San Luis Obispo, is responsible for sending a bench officer or judge with the case to be heard in the receiving county. That could be Judge Van Rooyen who is currently appointed to the case, but it could also be another one of our judges,” Milan said. “The third option is that this county can request that the office of the Chief Justice of California appoint an unrelated judge to travel and hear the case.”
"The presiding judge [in Monterey County], Judge Butler, will need to confer with the other felony judges, in particular, to decide where the case will be heard, which judge will preside over the case, all those kinds of logistical and substantive details,” explained Chris Ruhl, the Monterey County Superior Court Executive Officer.
Some of those logistical matters, including a date, time and courtroom, are expected to be addressed during a pre-trial conference scheduled for next Monday.
“Frankly, I'm glad that this is happening now rather than six months ago when we were still operating under all of the COVID restrictions and having to keep jurors socially distanced because just the sheer numbers of jurors that we will likely have to call in would have made that much more of a challenge,” Ruhl added.
Defense Attorney Robert Sanger also filed paperwork to request the release of soil samples to counsel ahead of the trial.
Scripps sister station KSBY News reached out to the attorney representing Kristin Smart’s family, but were told over the phone that they do not have a comment on the decision to move the trial to Monterey County.
This story was first reported by Claudia Buccio at KSBY in Santa Barbara, Calif.