This story was updated at 4 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4, 2020, with more information.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole will not yet decide whether to grant a request to move the trial of Janet Hinds, the motorist accused of hitting and killing Chattanooga police officer Nicholas Galinger.
Galinger, 38, was struck by a car on Feb. 23, 2019, while inspecting a manhole cover that had water flowing from it in the 2900 block of Hamill Road just after 11 p.m. The driver fled the scene.
Hinds' attorneys — Ben McGowan and Marya Schalk — argue that because of "undue excitement against [Hinds]," allegedly caused by "extensive pretrial publicity," she could not have a fair trial in Hamilton County.
They claim news outlets have unfairly given the case more coverage than other cases in which a pedestrian was killed, and that the coverage "has not been objective nor fair, but instead has been quick to criticize, criminalize and convict the defendant."
Prosecutors, however, believe it's too early to consider the request to move the trial, and they downplayed the defense's argument that news coverage has been abnormally heavy or biased. District Attorney General Neal Pinkston stressed that the media's coverage of the case has appeared to be unbiased so far, as it has followed the initial incident and each development throughout the court process.
Hinds' defense then attacked the social media response surrounding the news coverage.
"The news media is a hallmark of our freedom in this country. They are absolutely pivotal, but they are also seeking to engage with the community," McGowan said. "And so what you find in these articles and in this coverage is a very emotional tone with respect to it it is not the quotidian details of what happens in court."
McGowan claims the emotional aspect is what has brought on pre-trial condemnation from the public via social media.
"Some of those people, based on their comments, strike me as folks who would pretend, were they to be selected, to be fair and impartial so as to get on this jury and to ensure that she 'rots in hell' or 'burns' or any of the other things that they say about her," he said.
The judge acknowledged that if the court were to rule according to what is shown on social media, there would be no question that a change of venue would be necessary. But it's difficult to know exactly how many individuals participate in the conversations on social media.
And it's sometimes surprising, he said, that when selecting a jury, there are often not as many people who know about a case as the judge and attorneys would assume.
"But I will say the publicity has been a great deal in this case," Poole said. "There's no question about that."
Nevertheless, he said he wants to hear more arguments on Feb. 18 when the parties reconvene for a hearing on the status of discovery of evidence. Poole said he hopes to set a trial date at that time, as well.