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Judge in Reno murder-rape considers porn evidence

Scott Sonner
Associated Press Writer

RENO, Nev. (AP) – The judge in the case of a Nevada man accused of killing one young woman and sexually assaulting two others said Thursday that he will decide soon whether jurors will hear or see evidence of his alleged fetish with women’s underwear and obsession with Internet porn.

Washoe District Judge Robert Perry said he hopes to rule by Monday on how much, if any, of the website photos or other material will be allowed as evidence at James Biela’s murder trial, which is set to begin May 10.

Beila, 29, a Sparks pipe-fitter and ex-Marine, is accused of kidnapping and strangling 19-year-old Brianna Denison in January 2008, then dumping her body and two pairs of thong underwear in a Reno business park. Biela could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

His two other accusers allege he took their underwear after assaulting them during the same time, not far from the same place on the edge of the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

In addition to at least six pairs of underwear, prosecutors want to introduce as evidence material taken from Biela’s laptop computer that show he regularly visited pornographic websites, often focusing on young women in thong underwear.

“It shows what his motivation is,” chief deputy district attorney Elliott Sattler said Thursday. “These are sexually driven crimes based on the defendant’s desire for young, small, petite, underaged women.”

The sites – which detectives said all appeared to be legal – included such names as “teens and thongs,” ”slim tan girls in undies and thongs,” ”finally 18,” and “really drunk girls.”

Sattler said one of the website photos “looks frighteningly similar to some of the people in this case in terms of age, physical stature.”

But the prosecutor said he doesn’t intend for the actual photos to be seen by the jury, rather he wants detectives to be able to testify about what they look like.

“We’re not going to make this a pornography show,” he said.

Public defender Jim Leslie said the jury would be unfairly prejudiced against Biela if prosecutors were allowed to bring in what he said was irrelevant evidence intended to have a “high shock value.”

He was arrested in November 2008 based in part on DNA evidence that linked him to Denison’s body, as well as one of the pair of thongs found with her in what detectives considered to be a criminal calling card.

Police determined one of those, a pink pair, belonged to a friend of Denison.

Denison, a Reno native who was home visiting friends while on break from her studies at Santa Barbara Community College, was sleeping on that friend’s couch the night she was abducted. The friend told police she didn’t know how the underwear got there or even that it was missing.

Police have never determined the owner of the other pair, which is black with a picture of the cartoon character the Pink Panther.

Prosecutors also want to present as evidence four other pairs that have no proven connection to any crimes, but have been tied to Biela.

His ex-girlfriend found two of them when she searched his truck while he was working in Washington state in September 2008, based on suspicions he was cheating on her. Police found two others when they searched a travel trailer Biela was storing in Reno the day after his arrest.

Carleen Harmon, who is the mother of Biela’s 5-year-old son, said she “freaked out” when she found the two small cotton pairs of underwear, one with a spot of blood consistent with a menstrual stain.

Making her first appearance in the case, Harmon testified Thursday that she confronted Biela and went to pick him up at his work site. She said he told her he took them from a coin-operated laundry and that he angrily threw them out the window of his truck as they drove off.

She also said she often got mad at him for surfing the Internet for porn but that she thought their sex life was normal and wasn’t aware of any “underwear issues.”

Judge Perry took the unusual step of prohibiting any photographs of Harmon and said he was inclined to keep that order throughout the trial for her safety. Court rules already ban photos of sexual assault victims in court.

The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.


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