ST. GEORGE – Attorneys for the man accused of starting the Brian Head Fire are asking for a change of venue, citing the fire’s local impact, smothering media coverage and other factors they claim play against their client receiving “a fair and impartial trial in Iron County.”
Taylorsville resident Robert Ray Lyman, 61, is accused of starting last summer’s fire at Brian Head that burned over 71,000 acres across parts of Iron and Garfield counties, destroyed 13 homes, triggered the evacuation of about 1,500 people and cost $40 million for fire agencies to combat.
“Unsurprisingly, the media outlets serving Iron County covered the fire with a frenzy,” attorney Andrew Deiss wrote in a motion filed July 12.
Much of the media coverage included “the false assertion” that Lyman started the fire with a weed torch or similar device.
“Unfounded rumors” over social media – often attached to the online comment threads of posted news articles – spread claims Lyman had been drunk and had been told by a police office not to burn anything.
All of the rumors are false, Deiss wrote.
“More over, an online poll, social media posts, and … comments all reflect a strong hatred of Mr. Lyman,” the motion reads.
The negative press and how far-spread it became are among the factors that Deiss and fellow defense attorney, Matthew Kaufmann, claim will prevent Lyman from getting a fair trial in Iron County.
Deiss wrote that he came across at least 57 online news articles addressing the Brian Head Fire. Across those articles, Lyman’s name is mentioned 116 times.
Deiss noted other social media posts that show how much animosity people in Iron County have against his client.
“People are ‘very, very angry’ at Mr. Lyman,” he wrote, quoting a social media comment. “They think he is guilty. And they want to see him severely – even unjustly – punished.”
Other social media posts say that Lyman “should be prosecuted to the fullest” and that “(they) need to hang the ahole with the weed torch who started this disaster,” according to the motion.
Another reason supporting a change in venue is the size of the area. Brian Head, where Lyman has a cabin, has 100 full-time residents, while Iron County has an estimated population of around 50,000.
“In such a small community, there is a reasonable likelihood that the fire directly or indirectly impacted the prospective jurors’ family, friends, or neighbors,” Deiss wrote.
Lyman may also be seen as a potential outsider by Iron County residents and therefore may not be allotted the same measures of impartiality he otherwise might be given.
Lyman is charged with two misdemeanor offenses for reckless burning and failing to notify authorities or failing to obtain a permit before burning. Combined, those charges are punishable by up to 18 months in jail and $3,500 in fines if he is convicted. He also could be ordered to pay restitution toward the $40 million cost of the fire.
Lyman has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is scheduled for trial next month in 5th District Court in Cedar City.
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