Sides spar over jury

In Lewis case, selection process slows to a crawl

May 19, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The tedious process of picking a jury to hear the murder charges against Ray Lewis recessed on a fractious note yesterday as defense attorneys and prosecutors skirmished for tactical advantage.

At 6 p.m. -- the latest the proceedings have gone all week - the judge, chief prosecutor and an attorney for Lewis all had law books in hand and were debating how many prospective jurors need to be called. The judge finally sent everyone home for the night and said she would settle the matter this morning.

As a result, the odds grew long of having a jury seated and hearing opening statements by Monday, as had been hoped.

It now appears opening arguments will not begin until Tuesday.

"I think you are all excessive in your questioning," said Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner, expressing frustration at the slow pace by which lawyers have quizzed prospective jurors.

"This trial should last one week, in my opinion," Bonner said. Instead, testimony in the trial is expected to last four weeks.

Lewis, 25, an all-Pro linebacker with the Ravens, is charged with assault and murder in connection with the early-morning stabbing deaths of two men Jan. 31 after a night of celebration after the Super Bowl was played here.

Charged with Lewis are two men who were with him at the time, Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami.

The victims were two Decatur, Ga., men who apparently encountered the Lewis party by chance and ended up in a deadly brawl: Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24.

By early afternoon yesterday, attorneys for both sides had completed the process of questioning 30 people to form a juror pool from which the 12 regular jurors will be drawn.

The issue to be decided today will determine whether the defense or the prosecution gains the advantage in picking a pool from which six alternate jurors will be drawn. In longer trials, alternates listen to testimony and fill in for regular jurors who are unable to continue with the case due to medical emergency or other reasons.

Unspoken is the reason for the skimishing: that attorneys on both sides have concluded from reading questionnaires filled out by prospective jurors that the people screened earlier in the week appear more favorable to the defense than the people coming later in the week.

It is purely coincidental that the second half of the group of prospects appears more inclined toward the prosecution. The prospects were drawn and numbered at random. But those holding higher numbers describe themselves as more conservative and law-and-order oriented than the ones holding lower numbers.

One man, for example, is a loan officer with a local mortgage firm who said jury service would take him away from his job and "affect my attitude."

Another man, an executive with the Home Depot Corp., described himself as "a pretty conservative person by nature."

Content with the characteristics of the people with low numbers, defense attorneys settled for the minimum of 12 strikes to assemble the regular jury. This had the effect of limiting the number of strikes available to the prosecution, who, under Georgia law, gets half as many as the defense.

For the back-up jurors, however, defense attorneys are arguing for the maximum and prosecutors seeking the minimum.

Among the potential alternates who were interviewed in court yesterday were a number of older, conservative businessmen who defense attorneys presume would be unfriendly to the causes of their young defendants.

Altogether, 20 prospects were questioned yesterday about their views on everything from the O.J. Simpson verdict to rap music.

The judge excused one woman who said she couldn't guarantee she could be fair. "It seems every time I turn around, some professional [athlete] is in trouble with the law," said the woman, who is an office worker for a federal agency here.

The names of the prospects are not being released and each is referred to by a number in the court.

The two sides also took turns trying to convince the judge a number of previously interviewed prospects were unfit due to hardship or bias.

Prosecutors sought to eliminate five, and the defense seven. The judge agreed to drop six, including one man who opined that "half of the cops in Atlanta are dirty," and a woman whose godmother is office manager for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.

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