Judge denies change of venue motions in child fentanyl death case

January 23, 2023

Jodi Neino (center) sits next to her attorney Julie Springstead-Waltz during a motion hearing in 51st Circuit Court. Jacob Schutter is seated at right.

Judge denies change of venue motions in child fentanyl death case

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor

HART — The parents of a 4-year-old boy who died from ingesting fentanyl appeared in 51st Circuit Court Monday, Jan. 23, for motion hearings.

Jacob Scott Schutter, 32, and Jodi Michelle Neino, 29, are criminally charged in connection to Eli Jude Schutter’s July 1 death. 

Schutter appeared in court with his attorney Ryan Good, and Neino appeared with her attorney, Julie Springstead-Waltz. They are both lodged in the Oceana County Jail.

Both defense attorneys made motions for a change of venue for their clients’ cases, and both made motions to quash the couple’s bind-overs to circuit court. Judge Susan K. Sniegowski denied their motions.

“We believe that due to pretrial publicity, extrajudicial statements by the Oceana County Sheriff’s Department and statements made in violation of the order prohibiting extrajudicial commentary gives this court good cause to justify a change in venue,” said Springstead-Waltz. “There has been so much publicity about this case in print newspapers, online newspapers, TV coverage, internet stories — all of the stories have been very inflammatory toward my client. In addition to that, the sheriff has made many public comments including inflammatory comments that include statements that are not in evidence — comments that serve no other purpose other than to be inflammatory and prejudicial to Ms. Neino in an attempt to sway public opinion against her and toward the police.

“The Oceana County Press has covered this matter extensively, and there have been hundreds of shares to their stories and many, many (reader) comments (on social media) that include such things as ‘Hang them,’ ‘They need to bring back the death penalty,’ ‘Fry them,’ ‘They need to be covered in honey and nailed to a stump in the middle of the woods and left there,’ ‘Bring back public hanging,’ and ‘Lock them up and throw away the keys.’ 

“We believe that the news coverage and actions by the sheriff’s department have been so pervasive and inflammatory that they have tainted the potential jury pool and will prevent her from having her constitutionally-guaranteed fair and impartial trial,” said Springstead-Waltz. 

“I would echo Ms. Springstead’s sentiments in this regard,” said attorney Good. “This is a fundamental due process issue. As my client and Ms. Springstead’s client being afforded substantive and procedural due process that purports with their constitutional rights. I would say that the extrajudicial statements that have been made, there is a legitimate danger that due process has been compromised.

“I can appreciate law enforcement’s passion in doing their job, but I think this one went a little too far. I also want to point out that I don’t fault the press for this. Anytime a public official comes to a member of the press and says, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’ you fact check it; you run it; and the story is run. I understand the publicity that goes with it. However, the publicity that goes with it isn’t my concern. What goes with it is my client’s ability to have a fair trial and his due process rights are afforded, and I don’t think we’re going to get that in this county anymore.”

“All three of us agree that the statements were not appropriate,” said Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon. “We agree that the press was not at fault. They have a First Amendment right to print whatever information they get.”

Bizon, citing case law, stated that the court should try to find a jury in Oceana County first before making a decision on a change of venue. “Try to impanel a jury. If we’re not able to resolve this attempt to seat a jury, then take this motion under advisement to make a decision at a later time.”

“I have dealt with a lot of motions for change of venue over the years, and I do agree that the best way to deal with a change of venue motion is to try to get a jury first,” said Judge Sniegowski. “We take that into consideration with the number of jurors that we call and the amount of time that is set aside for jury selection to make sure these issues are fully explored during the jury selection process.

“I don’t believe this has had an overwhelming amount of pretrial publicity. This is not a case that has been picked up by the national news and has run wild through the internet and national news as other cases that have been dealt with in the 51st Circuit Court jurisdiction. We were able to sit a case even in the face of national press. I am going to deny it at this time, but the motion may be renewed during the course of jury selection.”

The cases were bound over from 79th District Court to 51st Circuit Court following preliminary examinations. Both are charged with manslaughter and second-degree child abuse.

The two defense attorneys argued that there was not adequate evidence presented at the preliminary exams in 79th District Court to move their cases up to the higher court. “It was Jacob who was with Eli — not Jodi,” said Springstead-Waltz. “It’s our position that the court committed a legal error, and the question of how the facts were applied to the law would be reviewed de novo for error.

“Jacob Schutter was storing fentanyl and para fluorofentanyl near where he and Eli were sleeping. No testimony was presented showing that Jodi possessed fentanyl and para fluorofentanyl.” 

“Your Honor, as it relates to the defendant mother, we have a 4-year-old child who died of fentanyl and para fluorofentanyl poisoning,” said Bizon. “This is a dangerous drug and anybody who watches the news anymore knows this is a dangerous drug, and it can kill people in very small quantities. It is a Russian Roulette type situation.

“The court heard all the evidence in both cases and found that there was probable cause to bind this case up for trial,” Bizon rebutted. “The standard for a bind over is just that — probable cause — not beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“These were all dangerous situations that were created by the parents, and the 4-year-old suffered, the 4-year-old died.”

“There were multiple locations in the house where fentanyl was found; where illicit drugs were found; where paraphernalia was found,” said the judge. “There is definite probable cause in this case that someone’s reckless act left these drugs in a place that was accessible to the child. Both parents were present in the house when this happened.”

“I am not denying it — and my client isn’t either — that this is a tragic case,” said Good. “It’s extremely sad, but there are still legal standards that need to be met. There has never been anything proven about how Eli got ahold of those things.”

Separate pretrial hearings for each defendant are scheduled for April 10 and April 17.

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