Capital Case Jury Must be "Death-qualified"
Have to be able to consider both life and death at trial
You can’t be a juror in a capital case if you wouldn’t render a death sentence in case of conviction if evidence supports it. Neither may you be seated in the jury box if you think convicted murderers always need to be executed.
The second week of jury selection in Robert Kenneth Stewart’s capital trial began with 117 people reporting out of the 190 called for jury duty. Monday was taken up with instruction, excuses, and paperwork. The defendant faces eight first-degree murder counts, so every juror has to be “death-qualified” – willing and able to order an execution if he’s convicted on any or all of these and they decide facts and circumstances support the extreme penalty.
Tuesday began with four more called to the box for questions. By the time court resumed after a morning break, only two remained. One had answered a question on his written questionnaire to say he could not consider life without possibility of parole for somebody convicted of deliberate, willful first-degree murder. He was challenged for cause without objection from the state and released.
Questioning by Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland would continue until the state was satisfied with four jurors. After that, defense lawyers Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells take their turn seeking jurors open to considering Stewart’s defenses.
It isn’t easy to get 15 people that both sides have confidence could go their way, especially in a case like this where the defendant frankly admits he did all the killing he’s accused of: shot gunning to death people in wheelchairs at a nursing home. His attorneys say they will put on evidence to support a not guilty verdict on mental health grounds.
Each individual has to write their answers to a questionnaire with 36 queries that prosecutors, defense attorneys and the court agreed on. The forms, once completed, are to be kept under seal by order of the court until the trial is over. Prosecutors Peter Strickland and Tiffany Bartholomew and defense attorneys Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells use the questionnaires as they interview jury candidates selected at random from the pool.
Bailiffs pass out these questionnaires attached to clipboards along with pens, as needed, for filling them out. The fourth-floor courtroom falls into a silence broken only by the rustle of paper, the scratch of ballpoints, and the distant warbling hum of the courthouse cooling system.
In addition to blanks for names, present and previous residences, military service, education, there are questions about previous experiences with law enforcement and courts, with guns, and with drugs.
They are asked obviously a number of clearly relevant questions like whether they know any of the witnesses and if they’ve ever been a victim of, or charged with, a crime. However, some queries touch on very personal matters. Potential jurors are asked about their religious beliefs, whether they belong to or attend a church, which one they go to and how often. They are asked to describe any church leadership positions they’ve held. Similar inquiries are made about any clubs or other organizations they belong to.
Other questions ask whether they or any family members get money or benefits, federal or state – and the list includes Social Security and veterans benefits, Aid to Families with Dependant Children, Medicaid, Work First, scholarships and grants, and even unemployment compensation.
While the forms delve into very personal matters, they are kept from the public, sealed by court order and destroyed at the end of the trial. There only legal use is to help counsel make sure every juror can be fair to both sides, willing and able to render either a life or death verdict based on evidence should the case go that far.
Question 12 asks if they have any beliefs about the justice system that would prevent their being fair and impartial if selected as a juror in this case.
Number 35 asks them to describe any reason they feel they “cannot or should not” serve on a jury.
In previous questioning of the eight who were seated, attorneys seeking to discover beliefs and attitudes toward the death penalty frequently mentioned both those questions.
Late Monday afternoon at the judge’s direction, the clerk randomly selected two dozen individuals for “group C” and instructed them to telephone after 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, for instructions. Another randomly selected group of 22 for group D is called and asked to stand. They are sent home with Group D cards and told to call the phone number on the back after 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 20.
“Listen carefully for the message,” the judge says. “There may be instructions for Group C as well as Group D.”
Again he cautions them not to form opinions, discuss the case, read anything about the case, or do any research into the matter. Many of these instructions are printed on their group cards as well.
Names of the remaining 22 are called out, assigned as Group E, and given their cards, and told to phone after 6 p.m. Thursday, July 21. A further 190 people have been summoned to report for jury duty next Monday, and another 180 on Monday after that; but it appears possible
All, whenever they arrive at the courthouse, are told to wait in the jury assembly room – room 409, the Stanly County Grand Jury Room – until called to the jury box for examination by the lawyers.
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