MURPHYSBORO — The murder trial of the man accused in the death of Pravin Varughese, a 19-year-old Southern Illinois University student who was found dead in Carbondale four years ago Sunday, is set to begin June 4 in Jackson County.
The date was set during court proceedings Friday. Despite a motion from the defense to move the trial, it looks like the Jackson County Circuit Court is going to give the highly-publicized murder trial a go in its own county.
Gaege Bethune, who is charged with murder in Varughese's death, learned Friday that Circuit Court Judge Mark Clarke will reserve a ruling on a change of venue motion until after the attorneys — Michael Wepseic for the defense and David Robinson for the state — have completed “vior dire,” or a preliminary examination of a witness or a juror by a judge or counsel. Essentially, the judge wants the attorneys to go through the process to see if a jury with alternates can be found locally before agreeing to move the trial.
Bethune, 23, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the death of Varughese, a 19-year-old student who was found dead in the woods behind the Carbondale Buffalo Wild Wings on Feb. 18, 2014.
On the same day Bethune appeared in court, Varughese's family and friends gathered at the place where Varughese's body was found four years earlier, in order to hold a memorial service.
During the motion hearing, Wepseic said he's positive that the amount of media coverage of his client’s case has had an influence on the opinions of several Jackson County residents.
He called the media attention unprecedented from the time Varughese went missing, saying there were daily reports regarding the search for the teenager and bi-weekly reports into the investigation and law enforcement action against Bethune even after one year.
Wepseic told the court the amount of media attention makes vior dire “insufficient.” He cited cases where trials have moved in the state, such as that of Richard Speck, who was convicted of murdering eight student nurses in 1966, and the 1980 trial of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, in which a Cook County judge brought in a jury from another county.
“I strain my memory to remember any case that has this much attention,” Wepseic said.
He said he fears the court will start the process, and it will run into so many people who have heard or read enough about the case that they can’t be impartial.
In the state’s response, Robinson said trials that have moved are much more prolific than Bethune’s case.
“Gaege Bethune is no Richard Speck, and he is no John Wayne Gacy,” he said.
Robinson said that while there are some citizens who have made up their minds about this case, the process will weed out those individuals — and neither side wants them on the jury anyway.
“The citizens of Jackson County have the right to judge a crime committed in that county,” he said. “We have a right to make sure that happens.”
He said he is confident the court can find 12 jurors and alternates.
Clark said if the court moved the trial, the media attention surrounding the cases would be there as well.
“We would be dealing with a lot of the same issues wherever we went,” he said.
Clarke said he didn’t possess the materials to establish bias in the county, but he had concerns. He said every time somebody thinks they are helping by making a comment in the public about their opinions on the matter, they are adding another paragraph to the defendant's next change of venue motion.
In a separate motion, Wepseic wanted to throw out testimony made by a witness during grand jury proceedings that Bethune was seen outside a party in Carbondale on the night of Varughese’s death, “jiggling” car handles, attempting to break in.
Wepseic said that testimony has no bearing on the state and the state “just wants to paint Bethune as a bad guy and needs to be convicted on first-degree murder.”
Robinson responded by saying it shows that the defendant was looking for drugs and had “a lust for money” in order to make a purchase. He said he finds it impossible that a jury in a first-degree murder case would take this detail and automatically convict him of murder because of it.
“This is something that shows Bethune is a person you can’t trust,” Robinson said.
On rebuttal, Wepseic said this is no proof the incident even happened except for one person’s testimony, which has been denied by Bethune and the person the witness said Bethune was with on the night in question. He said it's nothing more than an attempt to sully Bethune’s reputation in front of a jury.
Clark said he would take the motion under advisement until full discovery has been turned in. He said he was being asked to determine what would be and wouldn’t be allowed in trial without the benefit of a full discovery.