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Reno judge rules on porn evidence in murder trial

Scott Sonner
Associated Press

RENO, Nev. (AP) – The judge in the case of a Nevada man accused of killing one young woman and sexually assaulting two others decided Monday the jury most likely will be allowed to hear and see evidence of James Biela’s alleged fetish with women’s thong underwear.

Washoe District Judge Robert Perry also ruled that Biela’s ex-girlfriend and others will be allowed to testify during next month’s murder trial about the Web sites he frequented with photos of young girls and thongs. But the judge said no one can refer to the sites as “porn.”

Beila could face the death penalty if convicted 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.

His two other accusers allege he took their underwear after assaulting them during the same time period near the same place on the edge of the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Perry ruled Monday the underwear is “clear and convincing evidence” that is legally relevant in the case but noted prosecution would have to meet the normal legal tests at the time of the trial – subject to cross examination – in order for the material to formally be introduced into the case.

Biela’s “rather unique possession of, and interest in, ‘thong’ underwear, particularly on younger girls, makes it more likely that he would be involved in crimes which have ‘thong’ underwear as a significant component and also makes it more likely that he is the perpetrator in this case than it would be without this evidence,” the judge wrote.

The ruling was largely a victory for prosecutors, who want to introduce as evidence material taken from Biela’s laptop computer that show he regularly visited the sites they had described as “pornographic.”

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

Public defender Jim Leslie argued that 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.

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

Carleen Harmon, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his 5-year-old son, found two of them when she searched his truck while he was working in Washington state in September 2008 because she was suspicious 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.

Because the prosecution does not intend to provide the jury with actual photographs from the websites, Perry prohibited the use of the words “porn” or “pornographic” when describing the photos.

“Simply characterizing these materials as ‘porn’ leaves too much to the imagination of the jurors. While some could conclude it was rather innocuous in today’s society, others would conceive horrific images, even if described otherwise,” the judge said.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin May 10 for the trial expected to last at least three weeks.


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