Jury selection begins in Lewis murder trial

District attorney takes unusual role of lead prosecutor

Long process expected

May 16, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The task of picking the jurors who will decide the guilt or innocence of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and his co-defendants got under way yesterday with Fulton County's top prosecutor taking the lead.

District Attorney Paul L. Howard surprised many observers by leading the jury selection effort for the state. He said he intends to participate in the case every day, possibly even delivering the opening remarks to jurors. Until now, an assistant district attorney has led the prosecution team.

Howard, who faces his first re-election campaign this year, has not tried a case since taking office four years ago. He was accompanied by four staff prosecutors."I'm just trying to rebalance the scales of justice. You've got all these lawyers on the other side," Howard said, pointing to the defense tables where Lewis was represented by four lawyers and each of his co-defendants had two.

In an arduous process expected to last several days, 48 prospective jurors were excused for reasons that ranged from a woman who needs to take care of her ailing mother to a man whose resume includes being a former law partner of the district attorney."So far, so good," Howard said as he packed up at the end of the day.

Howard also plans to take advantage of DNA technology to make his case. He has contracted with renowned criminologist Henry Lee to testify about the blood evidence in the case, according to a witness list read yesterday in court. Lee appeared on behalf of the defense in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and consulted with prosecutors in the investigation of Denver child model JonBenet Ramsey's strangulation.

A gag order prevents either side in the Lewis case from discussing evidence, but several sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said the blood from the victims was found in the limousine that Lewis and his party used on the day of the killings.

Lewis, faces charges of assault and murder stemming from the Jan. 31 stabbing deaths of two men killed in an early-morning brawl outside a nightclub hours after the Super Bowl was played here.

On trial with him are two companions, Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami, and Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore.

Lewis turned 25 yesterday, marking his birthday as the trial opened that would determine if he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.

All three of the defendants were in court yesterday, with close-cropped haircuts and business suits, seated a few feet apart but never speaking to one another.

Lewis, dressed in a navy blue suit, wore a black nylon bracelet bearing the initials for "What would Jesus Do?" The phrase, popular with born-again Christians, comes from a novel written decades ago by a priest.

Seated several rows behind Lewis were several relatives, including his grandfather and grandmother. Lewis, free on $1 million bail, left with them after the day's proceedings. His co-defendants returned to jail.

Lewis attorney Don Samuel expressed satisfaction with the jury pool. "It's pretty much what we expected," Samuel said.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner, overseeing a case that could last five weeks, intends to seat six alternates along with the 12 regular jurors to ensure a full panel is available when deliberations begin.

Trial attorneys view jury selection as an art and science crucial to the outcome of a case. The defense attorneys will each have the right to strike at least 24 people from the panel for any reason - and almost certainly more than that as each panel of prospective jurors and alternates is seated. Prosecutors get at least 12 such strikes.

Accordingly, 150 prospective jurors were summoned to the courthouse Friday.

The 136 who showed up were asked to fill out a 16-page questionnaire, crafted in negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys, with more than 100 queries on such things as television viewing habits, the sports teams they rooted for and their attitudes on law and order.

The attorneys spent the weekend studying the responses and agreed to drop 42 prospects immediately, including Howard's former law partner, who presumably would be biased in favor of prosecutors. Others were excused for personal hardships, or for admitted prejudices about the case.

Defense attorneys then asked for another 23 to be dropped, based on biases revealed in the responses or other issues, and the judge agreed to five. Prosecutors got none of the two prospects they asked to drop.

The remaining pool of 86 jurors were then divided into two groups and brought into the courtroom, where each attorney and Howard took turns asking for a show of hands in response to a series of questions probing attitudes and experiences. Respondents will face individual questioning today and tomorrow.

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