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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A Dunn County judge has denied a defense attorney’s motion to suppress statements made by a suspect in the death of an Eau Claire man in the Town of Spring Brook last March.
Judge James Peterson denied the motion at a court hearing December 3 to suppress statements made by Ezra J. McCandless, 21, during an interview March 24 with investigators after the body of 24-year-old Alexander Woodworth was discovered March 23 in a car registered to McCandless in the Town of Spring Brook.
Woodworth had been stabbed multiple times.
McCandless, who is charged with one Class A felony count of first-degree intentional homicide, appeared before Judge Peterson with her attorney, Aaron Nelson.
In the court’s opinion, McCandless was not in custody for Miranda warning purposes when she spoke with investigators March 24 while she in the behavioral health unit at Mayo Eau Claire, Judge Peterson said.
Investigators spoke with McCandless in a conference room and closed the door for privacy. The door is locked from the outside, but the door is not locked from inside, Judge Peterson noted.
Investigators told McCandless she could stop speaking with them whenever she wished, that the door was not locked, and that if McCandless wanted to leave, investigators would walk with her to find hospital staff, he said.
Nelson conceded the interview with McCandless on March 23 was not an interrogation, and Nelson also is not challenging statements from law enforcement regarding their contact with McCandless on March 22, Judge Peterson said.
McCandless entered the behavioral health unit on an “emergency hold,” he said.
The questions surrounding McCandless speaking with investigators on March 24, Judge Peterson said, include whether her conversation with investigators means that an interrogation took place; was McCandless in custody for the purpose of a Miranda warning; and were McCandless’s statements to law enforcement voluntary?
During interviews March 22 and March 23, law enforcement officers were trying to figure out what had happened March 22. McCandless had approached a home in the Town of Spring Brook barefoot, was wearing torn clothes and was covered in mud, Judge Peterson said.
McCandless said she had been sexually assaulted, and a SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner) exam had been done, he said.
She was characterized as being “out of it,” and there was concern for her well-being, he said.
During the March 23 interview, McCandless was responsive to questions, but there were many things she could not remember. She did not appear “out of it” or “out of touch with reality,” seemed calm during the interview, and there was no indication the conversation with law enforcement was not voluntary, Judge Peterson said, noting no one had put pressure on McCandless, and she chose to speak with the officers.
The same officers returned on March 24 to speak with McCandless, who had a right to refuse to speak to them but chose to speak with them again, Judge Peterson said.
By the third interview on March 24, Woodworth’s body had been found in a vehicle belonging to McCandless, he said.
At the beginning of the March 24 session with McCandless, law enforcement officers believed she could be a victim, a suspect or a witness, and that once the body had been found, questions could lead to incriminating responses, Judge Peterson said.
No Miranda warning was given, and McCandless was never told she was under arrest, he said.
The mental health unit was more like being in a public place than in a police station or a squad car, and McCandless was told she did not have to speak with the officers, who were not in uniform, Judge Peterson said, noting McCandless had not been restrained and the officers had made no threats or promises.
During the first half of the interview, there was no indication McCandless knew authorities had found Woodworth’s body, and about halfway through, the officers told McCandless “we think we know what happened” and informed her they had found Woodworth, he said.
The officers told McCandless that if they were going to help her, she had to tell the truth, Judge Peterson said.
The officers were not being coercive, and telling someone they needed to know what happened is consistent with McCandless being treated as a victim, a witness and possibly a suspect, he said.
When investigators asked to speak with McCandless again, she declined and had the ability to say “no,” Judge Peterson said.
After Judge Peterson denied the motion to suppress statements made by McCandless on March 24, Nelson pointed out he had filed a motion November 15 to compel the prosecution to turn over evidence (also known as “discovery”).
Nelson said he was asking the judge to grant his motion about the discovery.
Richard Dufour, the assistant state attorney general who is prosecuting the case, said the prosecution has not failed to provide discovery.
Much of the evidence is still at the state crime lab, although the information should be back soon, including DNA evidence, Dufour said.
When the discovery comes back from the state crime lab, Nelson can review it at any time, he said.
Nelson said he wanted to grant his motion to allow access in the next 30 days, but Dufour said he did not know for sure when the evidence would arrive.
Dufour said he was meeting with law enforcement to make sure Nelson would have everything he needs and did not see a reason for the judge to grant a motion concerning discovery.
The prosecution has not said “no” to Nelson’s request for information, and there is no reason to grant a motion that would give the appearance the prosecution is doing something wrong, Dufour said.
Nelson said he has asked more than four months ago to “see what they had,” and while the prosecution did not say “no,” they also did not say “yes.”
Judge Peterson said Nelson should be notified as soon as the discovery was available, and Nelson said if he had not received the evidence within 30 days, he would let the court know he had not received it.
A jury trial in the case is scheduled for April, and Judge Peterson asked if Nelson were planning to ask for a change of venue.
If Nelson is not going to ask for a change of venue, then a large jury pool from which to select would be appropriate, he said.
A questionnaire could be used to screen potential jurors in the jury pool, Judge Peterson noted.
The case has not generated excessive publicity in Dunn County, and McCandless and Woodworth are not from Dunn County, he said.
Nelson said he did not want to use a jury questionnaire, because the questions could provide clues to potential jurors about the case for which they were being screened.
The question will be whether potential jurors have heard about the case and have already formed an opinion before the trial, Nelson said.
Judge Peterson reiterated a large jury pool could be called in and that the prosecution and the defense should plan on using an entire day for questioning potential jurors and for jury selection.
Another court hearing is scheduled February 7, 2019, pertaining to additional motions that have been filed.
Bail was set for McCandless at $250,000 cash on March 29.
At the time of the December 3 hearing, McCandless remained in custody at the Dunn County jail.