An attorney for a Coralville grandmother accused of igniting the 2011 fire that killed 14-year-old Raymone Bryant has filed a motion requesting a change of venue for the first-degree murder trial.
In the motion, filed Tuesday in Johnson County District Court, attorney Sarah Hradek argues that there has been “pervasive media coverage and publicity surrounding this case to such a degree that the defendant cannot get a fair trial in Johnson County and the surrounding area.”
Lillie Williams, 50, was arrested after police said she intentionally started the fatal fire at 720 11th Ave. in Coralville on Sept. 4 that killed Bryant. Investigators said Williams knew her cousin and her cousin’s husband lived in the home that burned.
A witness, according to a criminal complaint, identified Williams as the person who set the fire, and court officials – over several hearings – have argued about whether Williams’ 6-year-old grandson is mentally capable of testifying at trial.
The child has told authorities and counselors that he watched his grandmother douse a pillow with gasoline and throw it in a garage, igniting the fatal fire.
On Aug. 30, the child testified in the judge’s chambers about the incident he said he witnessed. He told Johnson County District Court Judge Paul Miller that his grandmother “started crying like she didn’t do it” after the fire.
Hradek, in her motion for a change of venue, mentions that quote as an example of why the trial should be moved. A news article, she states, “cited inadmissible and highly inflammatory information about the defendant’s credibility specifically that, ‘she’s always lying.’”
Hradek argued that both print and TV media outlets have contributed to the media saturation in Johnson County. Assistant County Attorney Anne Lahey on Wednesday filed a resistance to the motion asking for a change of venue.
The judge has not yet ruled on the motion, and Williams’ case is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 23. Miller also has not yet ruled on whether the 6-year-old grandson is competent to testify at trial.
Hradek in September filed a motion arguing the child has shown he is not competent to tell the truth during trial.
“The child had difficulty answering questions directly posed to him,” according to the motion. “He was unable to distinguish between his own observations and what had been told to him. And finally, he told false stories as though they were true, showing no understanding of the responsibility to tell the truth.”
During the interview with the judge, Hradek contends, the child told a story about how people jumped from a vent onto a bed and a trampoline that was “clearly fictional in nature.” He also described things for which he was not present but about which he had been told, according to the motion.
The boy “engaged in flights of fancy” during the interview, telling stories about stacking beds on top of each other, skipping kindergarten and having just two days remaining of first grade, according to the motion.
“The child witness failed to demonstrate any understanding of the moral responsibility to tell the truth,” Hradek said in her motion.
It’s unclear when the judge might decide whether the child can testify at trial.
Williams has declared her innocence in open court, telling a judge that the murder charge is based on “all false information.”