By Scott Sonner
RENO — The Nevada Supreme Court has denied a Reno man’s latest bid to get off death row for the 2008 rape and killing of a 19-yearold college student that became one of the highest-profile cases in the city’s history.
The justices unanimously rejected James Biela’s motion for a rehearing of the appeal they denied in April seeking a new penalty phase of his trial in the kidnapping and murder of Brianna Denison and sexual assault of two others near the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
Biela’s lawyers argued his original public defenders should have objected to improper evidence about his history of domestic violence and animal abuse. The justices agreed the defenders erred, but they said barring that evidence wouldn’t have mattered.
A judge signed a warrant for the 38-year-old former Marine and pipefitter’s death Aug. 18, 2010, but his execution has been on hold pending appeals since 2013.
His lawyers argued the jury that sentenced him was “severely prejudiced” by “highly damaging information” presented without proper notice to the defense team. It included evidence Biela abused an ex-girlfriend, swung a knife at someone and broke a puppy’s leg.
“Had the jury not heard the extensive evidence in aggravation presented, which included animal abuse and domestic violence, the jury would not have sentenced Mr. Biela to death,” the rehearing request said.
The justices disagreed and denied the request July 5 without explanation.
While the evidence was damaging, “there is no reasonable probability that the outcome of the penalty hearing would have been different if trial counsel had objected and the trial court had excluded the evidence,” they wrote in April. “The jury was faced with a defendant who had engaged in a pattern of violent conduct that had escalated to murder.”
They also rejected Biela’s argument that his trial should have been moved out of Reno because of pretrial publicity.
Denison, a sophomore at California’s Santa Barbara City College, was abducted in January 2008 while sleeping at a friend’s residence near the Reno campus. A month later, local TV stations broadcast the news conference live when police announced they had found her body in a field in south Reno.
Investigators said she was raped and strangled with her best friend’s thong underwear. They believed she was the victim of a serial rapist with a fetish for women’s panties who had assaulted at least two other college students.
As a manhunt intensified, blue ribbons in honor of Denison appeared on fences and lapels throughout Reno. Biela was arrested that November following a tip from his ex-girlfriend. DNA testing tied him to the crime scene.
His current lawyers, Christopher Oram and Edward Reed, said in an earlier appeal the only case in northern Nevada with pretrial publicity rivaling this one was Darren Mack’s conviction for the 2006 killing of his ex-wife and attempted assassination of the judge who handled their divorce.
That trial eventually was moved to Las Vegas. Oram said this one should have been too.
“Hate permeated this society,” he said.
The Supreme Court acknowledged in April that while all the prospective jurors indicated they had followed news updates of the case, the court transcript doesn’t indicate media coverage “had become so saturated as to overcome the presumption of impartiality.”