Tiffanie Pierce, charged in a double homicide and dismemberment case, will stand trial in Missoula County if an impartial jury can be seated.
Friday, Judge Jim Wheelis denied, at least for the time being, a change of venue request in Missoula County District Court.
The defense team argued that many potential jurors in Missoula already had formed negative opinions about the defendant given wide publicity in the case. Pierce was charged in the killings of Jackson Wiles, 24, and Marilyn Pickett, 15, whom police found dismembered and partially dissolved in tubs of chemicals in August 2017.
"Frankly, the drama in this case is going to affect a potential panel wherever we go," Wheelis said.
The judge agreed jury selection would be difficult, but he requested double the number of potential jurors be called and said he did not believe the task was "insurmountable." The judge and lawyers also discussed issuing a questionnaire that would help streamline selection in the case set for trial in five weeks.
In the courtroom, Pierce laughed with two county law enforcement officers before the hearing began. When her attorney Lisa Kauffman entered the courtroom, Pierce beckoned her — "give me a hug" — and simultaneously waved to a man in the gallery as she embraced her lawyer. Lawyer Brian Smith also is representing Pierce.
At the hearing, prosecutor Jennifer Clark likened the high-profile trial to another case she and Smith both worked — and the state prevailed. In 2014, a jury found Markus Kaarma guilty of deliberate homicide in the shooting of a 17-year-old German exchange student in the defendant's garage.
Clark said that trial also garnered widespread publicity, but a jury was seated in one day.
The lawyers discussed a couple of other pending items related to the case, such as autopsy photographs that will be shown in court and the delay in a psychological evaluation that might cause the defense to request the court postpone the trial.
Another defendant, Augustus Standing Rock, also was charged in the killings of Wiles and Pickett, and he pleaded guilty in December. The plea agreement calls for him to serve a life sentence in prison and testify in court against Pierce.
In a separate case, Pierce is accused of attempted homicide and assault with a weapon in a stabbing one month prior to the double homicide. That trial is set for April.