Publicity complicates jury selection for 3 major US trials

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Posted: Feb 11, 2015 9:02 AM
Publicity complicates jury selection for 3 major US trials

DENVER (AP) — Texas lived up to its reputation for swift justice by taking just three days to seat a jury for the trial of the man charged with killing the former Navy SEAL depicted in "American Sniper." But jury selection in two other major U.S. cases is taking much longer.

While opening statements are set for Wednesday in Texas in the killing of veteran Chris Kyle, hundreds of prospective jurors in the Colorado theater shooting begin returning to the courthouse for months of questioning about their views on the death penalty and mental illness. And jury selection in the Boston Marathon bombing has dragged on for more than a month, and not just because of interruptions from snowstorms.

All three cases are complicated by heavy publicity. The Boston and Colorado trials are also problematic because of the large number of people affected by the attacks and because the death penalty is on the table. Only jurors willing to sentence someone to death can be selected for such cases.

"The most difficult prospect for jury selection in high-profile cases is to ascertain which of your pool, despite what they have heard, read and seen, can keep an open mind," said Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant who worked on big cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial.

A look at the three sensational cases unfolding in courtrooms around the U.S.:

COLORADO THEATER SHOOTING

About 9,000 prospective jurors were summoned starting Jan. 20 for the trial of James Holmes in what experts say was the biggest jury pool in U.S. history.

During the first phase, thousands filled out 75-question surveys. Hundreds will return for the second phase, which could last 16 weeks, as attorneys individually question just six people per day.

The 12 jurors ultimately picked will decide whether Holmes was insane when he killed 12 people and wounded 70 in a 2012 attack on a suburban Denver theater during a screening of the latest Batman movie. If the jury rejects his insanity claim, it will decide whether he should be executed.

The judge has already dismissed more than 1,000 people who cited various reasons for not being able to serve on the trial, which could run through October.

BOSTON MARATHON BOMBING

More than 1,350 prospective jurors were called to federal court in early January to complete a detailed, 28-page questionnaire for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused in the 2013 bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260. The jury will decide whether Tsarnaev is guilty, and if so, whether he lives or dies.

The judge began individual questioning Jan. 15. The process has been repeatedly interrupted by huge snowstorms that closed the courthouse and by requests from Tsarnaev's lawyers that the trial be moved from the city that was so traumatized by the bloodshed.

But the judge said last week that locals have shown themselves capable of being impartial and that "substantial progress" has been made. The judge has not set a date for opening statements.

'AMERICAN SNIPER' KILLING

The Oscar-nominated movie was released weeks before the start of jury selection, raising questions about whether it would be harder to find unbiased jurors. But a jury was seated Monday, a day ahead of schedule, and the judge estimated no more than two dozen people were dismissed because of publicity about the case.

Eddie Ray Routh, a troubled former Marine, is charged with murder, accused of fatally shooting Kyle and another man after they took him to a gun range to help him deal with his problems.

Routh's attorneys plan to pursue an insanity defense. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.

About 800 potential jurors were summoned, more than four times the usual number. The pool was narrowed down during a screening process that took two days. Candidates filled out a questionnaire about whether they had read Kyle's memoir or seen the movie, served in the military or were familiar with guns.

Simply reading Kyle's book or seeing the movie were not grounds for dismissal. Instead, potential jurors were asked if they could set aside what they had heard.

OTHER BIG CASES OVER THE YEARS

By comparison, jury selection in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson lasted about two months in 1994. It took three weeks to empanel a jury in the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997. There were about two weeks of jury selection in the case of Conrad Murray, the former doctor convicted of killing Michael Jackson in 2011. And seating a jury in the court-martial of Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, convicted of killing 13 people in a 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, took just a week.

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Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.