Fla. trial in killing of HCC students slowed

Media coverage, lengthy case make jurors hard to seat

January 28, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The numbers just made picking a jury that much harder: Three brothers, two capital murder charges apiece. A trial that could easily last more than a month. Four lawyers, each with their own chance to strike jurors. Two local papers and any number of electronic media reporters covering the trial.

It all added up to five days of mind-numbing questioning - and still no jury.

Still no opening arguments or testimony in the case against Jonathan, Christopher and Joshua Trull, the local brothers accused of killing two Columbia men and seriously wounding a third at a New Smyrna Beach resort during spring break 1998.

The brothers face the death penalty if convicted.

With jury selection set to continue tomorrow, attorneys for both sides said they are hoping to have 12 jurors and four alternates selected by midweek.

"I feel like we're trying the Oklahoma bombing case," said weary prosecutor Noah McKinnon late Friday.

At the same time, he said, "I feel like we're making a lot of progress."

Judge Shawn L. Briese had set aside three days for jury selection in the case against the brothers, the last of seven defendants accused of taking part in the attack that left Matthew Wichita and Kevans B. Hall II dead, and Seth Qubeck suffering from 17 stab wounds.

But it quickly became clear that the process was going to take longer.

Intense media coverage lopped off several potential jurors - some said they knew too much about the case to keep an open mind. The length of the trial reduced the pool even further.

"I have a vacation in July. I'd like to make that," one juror said when asked if he had a problem serving on the jury for a weeks-long trial.

Three initial 22-juror panels -- 66 in total - yielded just 11 potential jurors. By late Friday, attorneys were still questioning 11 people from a fourth panel. A fifth was scheduled to come in for questioning early tomorrow.

While the process has been a long one, it's important to "tread slowly" because of the sheer length of the trial, said Gerard Keating, Jonathan Trull's lawyer.

"It's extremely inconvenient for most of the public to give up the time, to give up their lives for a case," he said.

As the process continued, the three defendants mimicked their lawyers, drawing charts and taking notes.

The victims' family members spent most of their time watching the whole process from the hard benches in the Justice Center's ceremonial courtroom. None would comment to the media; McKinnon had asked them not to to cut down on publicity.

McKinnon said the families seem to be holding up well. "Actually, they're doing better probably than I had expected," he said.

When the case finally starts, the prosecutor said he plans to take the jury chronologically through the events that left Howard Community College students Wichita, 21, and Hall, 23, dead and landed Qubeck, now 23, in a hospital for nearly three weeks.

The youths and two other friends, all Oakland Mills High School alumni, were on a 10-day spring break trip to New Smyrna Beach. The Columbia men intervened in a confrontation involving a Michigan man, his teen-age daughter and three local young men, at the father's behest.

The initial dispute at the Ocean Palms Beach Club, where the Marylanders were staying, began over a ring and a comment the father made about the baggy pants of one of the local men.

That fight at the Ocean Palms Beach Club involved only fists.

But afterward the locals, who included Joshua Trull, then 17, are accused of calling in reinforcements - among them, Jonathan and Christopher Trull - to start another fight a few hours later.

The group brought knives, baseball bats and a billiard-ball-filled sock with them, according to court documents.

Seven local men were charged in connection with the April 16, 1998, attack. Four have pleaded guilty to lesser charges - three to attempted murder - and have agreed to testify at the Trulls' trial.

McKinnon has said that the decision to seek the death penalty against the brothers came out of their roles in the attack. Jonathan, 30, and Christopher, 27, are accused of the killings and of leading the pack up the stairs to the resort. Joshua, now 20, is accused of calling his brothers in and using a bat during the attack, according to court documents.

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