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Thursday, May 9, 2013 09:05 am

Drying paint and picking jurors

Selection process slow in Harris trial

It took just two weeks to try mass killer Richard Speck in a Peoria courtroom in 1967.

Forty-six years later in a courtroom adjacent to the one where Speck was convicted after less than an hour of deliberations, it took a full week simply to pick a jury in the murder trial of Christopher Harris, who stands accused of slaughtering a family of five.

Circuit Court Judge Scott Drazewski had expected opening statements on Monday. In pretrial proceedings, prosecutors had told the judge that having prospective jurors fill out questionnaires, then questioning them one by one, would be nearly as fast, if not faster, than the more traditional practice of questioning jurors in groups. Instead, just eight jurors had been seated on Monday morning.

The lack of action early on reflects the doggedness of prosecutors. They refused to excuse jurors for cause, despite seemingly obvious issues that would prevent them from fairly deciding the fate of a man charged with murdering Ruth and Raymond “Rick” Gee and three of the couple’s children with a tire iron in the Logan County town of Beason nearly four years ago.  

Consider, for example, an elementary school teacher whose voice broke when assistant state attorney general Steven Nate asked whether she could be impartial in the face of gruesome photographs showing children who had been beaten to death. The woman broke down even further under questioning by defense attorney Daniel Fultz, who spent less than a minute with the woman, asking her again whether she could be fair despite the photos.

“As an educator, it’s very upsetting,” the teacher said as she dabbed away tears.

Nate didn’t give up once the woman was outside the courtroom, opposing a motion from Fultz to excuse the woman, but the judge ruled for the defense. He did so again in the case of a preschool teacher who said that the defendant would start with a disadvantage in her mind. After the prospective juror acknowledged her bias, Fultz moved that she be excused, the prosecution disagreed and so questioning continued for more than 20 minutes before the judge, who had expressed surprise that the two sides hadn’t agreed to excuse more jurors for cause, ruled against prosecutors and dismissed her.

And so it went.

Jury selection had gotten off to a veritable jack-rabbit start on the first day of questioning prospective jurors, which might help explain why things became so bogged down later on.

During the selection process, both sides questioned prospective jurors until four had made it through questioning. The first panel of four was ready by lunchtime on the first day. It was then time for both sides to decide whether they should strike one of the four prospects.

Each side got seven strikes, and it is generally considered advantageous to have the other side run out of strikes first. If one of the four prospective jurors who had made it to the preliminary panel was stricken, then questioning of other prospective jurors would continue until the panel again had four people, and the sides would again get a chance to exercise strikes. If no strikes were used, then the four-person panel would become jurors and the process would repeat itself.

The first panel of four included a manager for an industrial cleaning company that specializes in hazardous material cleanups. He had once applied to become a state police officer and he looked the part, with closely cropped hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. In short, he appeared to be an attractive juror for the prosecution.

In contrast, the panel includes a casino hostess whose former husband is serving time for murder. The woman also has a sister with a felony theft conviction. In her questionnaire, she wrote “I believe in the phrase ‘Innocent until proven guilty’” and underlined the word “proven.” A single parent, she has a son with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that can cause odd behavior. Might she, then, be receptive to the defense’s contention that 14-year-old Dillen Constant, who had attention deficit disorder, killed his family and was then killed in self defense by the defendant, who had dropped by the Gee home unexpectedly?

The two sides had tentatively agreed to excuse the woman on grounds of hardship because she would have to use vacation time to serve as a juror, but the deal fell apart after questioning was complete, with the judge rejecting a prosecution motion to dismiss the woman.

“What goes around comes around,” said Drazewski in siding with the defense.

But prosecutors didn’t use a strike to eliminate the casino hostess, perhaps betting on the defense to use a strike on the man who had applied to be a cop. The prosecution would thus preserve a strike and could still eliminate the hostess once the panel was replenished with a fourth prospective juror. If that was the strategy, it didn’t work: The defense instantly accepted the four-person panel. The surprise in the courtroom was palpable, with a brief silence as if everyone except the defense was thinking “Huh?”

From that point on, the proceedings slowed, with questioning and motions lasting as long as an hour for a single prospective juror and prosecutors taking considerably longer with each person than the defense, perhaps preferring a slow, deliberate pace to a faster one more prone to error. If nothing else, the defense’s willingness to accept a would-be police officer as the price for getting a woman familiar with the wrong side of the law suggests the sort of tradeoff lawyers make when angling for a hung jury. After all, it only takes one holdout to keep a defendant out of prison.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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