EPHRATA, Wash. — The re-trial of a man convicted as a teenager of killing a playmate in 2003 will stay in Grant County, a judge ruled Friday, tabling for now a request to move one of the most high-profile cases in the region in years.
However, visiting Judge John Hotchkiss of Douglas County left open the possibility of moving the trial, tentatively scheduled for this fall, at a later date, if warranted.
Evan Savoie was sentenced as an adult to 26 years in prison for the death of 13-year-old Craig Sorger, who had been beaten and stabbed repeatedly at a recreational vehicle park. The state Court of Appeals threw out Savoie’s murder conviction in 2011 over a judge’s error.
Grant County is a medium-size county at most, with about 36,000 registered voters and potential jurors, argued defense attorney Mike Felice. The inflammatory publicity of the case — including the nature of the crime and the ages of Savoie and the victim — ensure that prospective jurors will have heard about the case and formed opinions, he said.
“There seems to be an amount of animosity generated toward Mr. Savoie,” Felice said.
Grant County Deputy Prosecutor Ed Owens called the request premature, saying a change of venue request should be filed once it’s known “what a juror has seen or heard.”
“You’d be surprised how many people are not that familiar with this case,” he said.
Hotchkiss denied the request but noted he might be willing to move the trial at a later date, if warranted. He said he had already spoken to court officials in Kittitas County, who could accommodate the case, and said he planned to contact Spokane County officials as well.
Felice had requested the trial be moved to Clark County, just north of Portland.
The murder painfully divided this Eastern Washington farm community, population 7,700, settled between fields of dry sagebrush and irrigated alfalfa. Sorger was last seen playing with two 12-year-olds, Savoie and Jake Eakin, of Moses Lake, and his mother reported him missing when he didn’t return home. Police found his body in a mix of brush and leaves.
A medical examiner determined he had been beaten and stabbed at least 34 times, so brutally a tip of the knife was left in his skull.
Both boys proclaimed their innocence for months, before Eakin agreed to testify against his friend in a plea deal. He ultimately led police to the murder weapon — a knife that matched the missing tip.
Eakin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 14 years.
Prosecutors tried Savoie as an adult, one of the youngest such defendants in state history, and a jury convicted him of first-degree murder.
The appeals court overturned the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial on grounds that the judge in the case had violated Savoie’s right to a public trial by closing the courtroom to hear arguments on a motion.
Defense attorneys had previously alleged family members might have killed Sorger, a special education student who struggled socially, sparking outrage from his parents.
In the process, the Sorger family’s medical records were inadvertently released, and the judge closed the courtroom to hear from an attorney he had assigned to represent the family.
The case ultimately cost the county and the state, which pitched in to help pay for the high-profile trial, more than $1 million.