Jimmy Chagra

Full title:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF, v. JOSEPH SALIM CHAGRA…

Court:United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

Nos. 82-1263, 82-1264.

Date published: Mar 14, 1983

Fact:

In 1979, United States District Judge John H. Wood, Jr. was shot in the back and  killed as he prepared to enter his automobile outside his home in San Antonio, Texas. His assassination was immediately headline news in San Antonio and throughout much of the nation. For almost three years thereafter the FBI conducted what the press characterized as “the most extensive FBI investigation since the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy.” The FBI agent who directed the investigation was quoted as describing the Wood murder as “the crime of the century.” The press coverage of the murder and its investigation was described by reporters for San Antonio’s major newspapers as “very extensive” and “intensive.”

On April 15, 1982, an indictment was returned alleging that El Paso attorney Joseph S. Chagra, his brother Jamiel A. (“Jimmy”) Chagra, his brother’s wife, Elizabeth Nichols Chagra, Charles Harrelson, and Harrelson’s wife, Jo Ann Harrelson, conspired to murder Judge Wood. The indictment also charged Harrelson and Jimmy Chagra with the actual murder of Judge Wood and accused all the defendants of conspiracy to obstruct justice. A separate indictment charged Joseph Chagra, Jimmy Chagra, Elizabeth Chagra and Leon Nichols with conspiracy to defraud the United States and attempted evasion of income taxes. Understandably and predictably, the press treated the indictment as a major news story, affording it front-page headline status and publishing numerous stories covering various aspects of the case.

Issue:

District Judge, specially concurring:

I concur in the result, and in most of what is said in the panel opinion. However, I respectfully disagree with the last paragraph of Part V of the panel opinion and with the phrase at the beginning of the final sentence of the opinion dealing with the same subject matter.

The trial judge properly concluded that much “highly prejudicial” information would be brought to the attention of the magistrate at the bond reduction hearing, information which would not be admissible evidence at trial. The judge also correctly decided that public disclosure of that information at that time would have significantly prejudiced the right of the government and the defendant to a fair trial. In my view, that should end the inquiry.

The San Antonio press had no right to a change of venue so as to permit it to publish this information prior to trial. Moreover, if a trial judge grants a defendant’s motion for a change of venue, he has a multitude of factors to consider in selecting the new location. We should not add another: the judge should not be required to widen the distance between the place where the indictment was brought and the trial, so as to accommodate the desire of the local press to publicize highly prejudicial material shortly before trial. 

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