Circuit Court Judge Jacob Reger denied a change of venue motion filed by the defense for Lena Lunsford Conaway, who is charged in the death of her toddler daughter, Aliayah Lunsford, on Monday, Jan. 8.
Conaway was indicted in March on one count of murder of a child by a parent by failure to provide necessities, one count of death of a child by parent by child abuse, one count of child abuse resulting in injury, and one count of concealment of a dead body by Lewis County Sheriff’s deputies.
The denial of her motion to change venues followed arguments from both the defense and prosecution, as well as from an investigator hired by Conaway’s defense team to conduct social media research.
Alex Weinstein, who was hired by Dyer Law Offices to look at social media postings in an effort to illustrate that Conaway could not receive a fair trial in Lewis County, was called as a witness by defense attorney Zach Dyer.
Weinstein took the stand and explained that he gathered the Facebook comments from the pages of three regional media outlets, WDTV, WBOY and a regional newspaper, on articles pertaining to Conaway’s case. He then said he went through the comments and classified each comment as either positive, negative, or neutral.
Weinstein noted that he was not an expert, and that it was often difficult to tell where the commenters resided, but noted that he could not find a single person proclaiming Conaway’s innocence, and that he had only found six comments that he classified as positive out of the approximately 1,200 comments.
Weinstein was also unable to provide exact numbers, saying that he neglected to bring them with him. Reger later questioned Weinstein about how he went about classifying the comments as positive, negative or neutral, and asked him whether it was fair to say that other people may interpret the comments in other ways.
Reger then cited two examples of comments which were marked by Weinstein as negative, in which the commenters expressed a desire to let the legal process take its course.
Reger then stated that he would not interpret those comments as negative. Weinstein said he had listed those comments as negative due to previous negative statements by the same commentators.
Reger then asked Weinstein again whether it was reasonable to think other people may view those statements as neutral or even positive, to which Weinstein agreed they could.
After Weinstein stepped down, Defense Attorney Thomas Dyer spoke, noting the difficulty in proving the point without a direct survey [previously denied]. He went on to call Weinstein a “family friend” and noted that Weinstein made it clear that pinpointing the residence of commentators would be difficult.
“We have a hard time anticipating a level playing field in Lewis County,” Thomas Dyer said, adding that he felt the trail would have to move.
Dyer also expressed a concern that some, who hold a biased view of Conaway, would express an eagerness to get on the jury, and Weinstein’s study of social media postings was their attempt to pull together palpable information on the subject.
Lewis County Prosecutor Christy Flanigan made her argument against a change of venue, saying the Facebook posts do not meet the standard required to move a trail. She noted that of the comments in which the commenters residence could be verified, the majority were not residents of Lewis County, and many were out-of-state.
Reger denied the motion, saying he felt the jury selection process would, “weed out those with an axe to grind.”
He went on to say that if there was trouble in seating a jury, he would then reconsider the defense’s motion.
Reger then conferred with both the defense and prosecution before setting a pretrial motion hearing at 10 a.m., on Jan. 31.
In October, Conaway was granted a continuance in her case, which was requested by the state. Flanigan said the investigation into the disappearance of then three-year-old Aliayah has spanned five years, and there are more than 150 tapes to go through.
Conaway’s trial is currently scheduled for Feb. 13, in Lewis County.