Jury selection begins in school sex-abuse case

November 24, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

Some 100 prospective jurors filed into an Anne Arundel courtroom yesterday and were asked to write down how they feel about sex abuse and what they know about Ronald W. Price, the former Northeast High School teacher convicted of having sex with three students.

The pool of jurors filled the Circuit Court's cavernous Courtroom One, where they were directed to complete a 28-page questionnaire as a first step in selecting a jury for the child sex-abuse trial for former Northeast teacher Laurie Susanne Cook.

Ms. Cook was one of three Anne Arundel teachers charged with child sex abuse following the highly publicized arrest last spring of Price.

M. Cristina Gutierrez, Ms. Cook's lawyer, said the unusually detailed jury-selection process is necessary to ensure that the jury selected for her client has not been tainted by the extensive publicity surrounding Price, who went on national talk shows to admit his crimes.

The trial for Ms. Cook, 33, of Catonsville, is scheduled to begin on Dec. 9, after two more days of jury selection. The trial is expected to take three-to-five days.

The rules governing criminal trials in Maryland allow defense and prosecuting attorneys each to remove up to four potential jurors from the jury pool without giving any reason.

But there is no limit to the number of jury candidates who can be dismissed if it is discovered that he or she has seen or read about a pending case.

Ms. Gutierrez won the right to distribute the questionnaires and to call back jurors in pre-trial hearings before Judge Lerner. She argued that Maryland courts have upheld extra precautions to ensure a fair trial in cases where there has been extensive pre-trial publicity.

Moving the trial to another Maryland county would not ensure an impartial jury because of the high profile of the Price case, she said.

The 70 questions covered a variety of subjects, including whether the potential jurors attended county schools, or whether they knew the victim, the defendant, any of the other teachers charged with sex abuse or sexual harassment at Northeast, or any of the 21 teachers, 29 students or former students who may be called as witnesses.

The questionnaire asked the jury candidates how they learned about the Price case and to name the newspaper or television station they relied on.

It also asked jurors their age, occupation, marital history, level of education and age of any children.

Potential jurors also were asked their views on a number of issues:

* "How widespread do you think the problem of sexual abuse is? Please explain."

* "What do you think are the most important values to teach your children?"

* "Do you believe teen-agers sometimes lie just to get attention?"

The 100 candidates are expected to be called back in groups of 25 on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 so that defense and prosecution lawyers can get more details about their knowledge of the Price case and their responses to the questionnaire.

The defense also has retained a consulting service, the National Jury Project, based in Minneapolis, Minn., to help select a jury.

Susie Macpherson, a spokeswoman for the firm, said the nonprofit organization offers numerous services to trial lawyers, from helping select juries to designing easy-to-understand graphics for courtroom display.

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