Trial for man in officer’s death won’t be moved

PONTIAC – The trial of a South Carolina man accused of reckless homicide in the death of a Pontiac police officer who has ties to Grundy County will not be moved.

Judge Robert Travers ruled Wednesday that Jason Collins’ trial will be held in Livingston County, a decision that rejects a defense argument that an unbiased jury cannot be seated in Pontiac.

Collins is charged with reckless homicide and aggravated driving under the influence in the October 2013 crash that killed Pontiac officer Casey Kohlmeier and his K-9 partner, Draco.
Authorities say Collins was drunk when his pickup truck struck a marked squad car parked in the median of Interstate 55 near Pontiac.

Kohlmeier’s stepfather is from Morris, and one set of his maternal grandparents are from Gardner, according to his obituary.

Defense lawyer Brendan Bukalski argued at a hearing two weeks ago that extensive media accounts of the crash may have tainted the jury pool.

He said a random sampling of 150 people in Pontiac conducted by private investigators found 114 who said authorities should not even bother with a trial.

Bukalski said he was disappointed with the ruling “because we believe there is a profound bias in the community from which the jury pool will be drawn should this case proceed to trial.”

A biased jury will compromise the defendant’s rights “and jeopardize our ability to seek a true and unbiased verdict in this case,” said the defense lawyer.

In his ruling, Travers said the survey done in April is too small and may not reflect the broader population of the county and its 38,000 residents. He also noted that the survey did not rely on a scientific or academically accepted method.

The judge left open the possibility that the trial could be moved if the jury selection process fails to produce a fair and impartial panel.

State’s Attorney Seth Uphoff opposed the motion to move the trial.

Commenting on the decision, he said, “I believe it is the right decision and a well-reasoned ruling.”

Collins has an Aug. 26 pretrial hearing. The initial trial date of Aug. 11 was not practical, Travers said, because neither side has had time to prepare for a trial.