A Maryland judge Friday told prosecutors it was “very unlikely” he would allow jurors to visit a remote field where an accused murderer allegedly lured his pregnant girlfriend, shot her in the head and buried her in a shallow grave.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Michael D. Mason said from the bench after reviewing prosecutors’ plans to take not only jurors to the area in Damascus but also the suspect, attorneys and judge.
The 45-minute hearing came ahead of the trial set to start next month for Tyler Lewis Tessier, 33, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death last year of Laura Wallen, a 31-year-old high school teacher.
As for the proposal to take jurors to the spot where Wallen’s body was found, the judge noted basic legal standards that would forbid anyone from talking to the jurors once they arrived there, which, he said, could create a situation where the jurors wouldn’t get much out of going to the scene.
“So, you’re going to take the jurors to this vast open space,” Mason asked prosecutors, “have them all get out of an SUV while we sort of all stand around and look at each other, and look at the area without anybody saying anything to anybody?”
Such a trip “may create more confusion in their minds than anything else,” Mason said. “What if we get out there, and one them has a question?”
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy suggested that the jurors be given some basic guidelines before going. But Mason appeared unmoved. “It’s very unlikely I would let you do it,” he said.
Prosecutors are seeking the visit to the field, they said in court filings, to underscore that it is secluded. “This is a spot that is known uniquely to a very small universe of people,” McCarthy said in court.
But the judge told McCarthy he could explain the area’s characteristics through photographs and witnesses. “There are other ways that it can be done,” he said. Mason said he may revisit the site trip request once the trial starts.
Tessier was in court Friday, wearing a dark-green prison jumpsuit, and displayed little emotion as McCarthy asserted that Tessier killed Wallen and used a skid loader to dig a hole to bury her body.
Wallen failed to report for the first day of school in early September, and her body was found Sept. 13 after a sweeping search in which Tessier made an emotional appeal for her return.
The court hearing Friday also offered a glimpse of the upcoming strategies in the case.
Prosecutors clearly want to use prominently a photograph of a smiling Wallen that they say Tessier took at the remote area the night before she was killed. The two were together at the site on back-to-back days last September, prosecutors say.
McCarthy said in court filings this week that Wallen was shot by someone who fired a .22-caliber weapon into the back of her head at the brainstem. On Friday, he said Tessier had access to four .22-caliber rifles — one as short as 18 inches — that were kept near the burial site at a meat-processing and slaughterhouse facility.
“Testimony will be admitted that the defendant knew exactly where to shoot that would lead to Ms. Wallen’s death,” McCarthy and two other prosecutors wrote. “The defendant has executed hundreds of animals in the exact same manner in which he executed Ms. Wallen.”
Tessier’s attorney continues to try to tamp down the emotional aspects of the case. He objected to the site visit, saying there was no reason to place the jurors right next to where Wallen was buried. He has asked the judge to prevent prosecutors from showing photos of Wallen’s body after it was discovered in the grave and halt them from dwelling on medical records that highlight her pregnancy.
“This is a highly emotional case. It’s the homicide of a pregnant, young woman,” said the attorney, Allen Wolf. “I think a major concern, I know for me and my client, and I think a major concern for the court has got to be how to make sure that a jury decides this case fairly, based on the facts and the evidence.”
The judge said he would reserve judgment about allowing the prosecutors to show jurors photos from the gravesite.
Prosecutors indicated in court Friday that, if need be, they would turn to photographs showing the site’s topography and to witnesses to convey its isolation. They would then try to establish that Tessier and Wallen went there alone twice during the weekend she was killed.
Among their evidence on that point, they indicated in court filings, are the photograph that Tessier took of Wallen seated in a truck the night of Sept. 2, which Tessier texted to Wallen’s sister, and a photograph Wallen took that same night, showing the area’s unique tree line.