Thursday, December 1, 2005

Marshall jury to serve in Yazoo County murder trial

Staff Writer

Residents of Marshall County are making history and doing their civic duty this week by showing up for jury selection for a capital murder trial in Yazoo County.

Marshall County agreed to provide a jury because of the widespread media coverage of the murder of three Yazoo County residents on Valentine’s Day 2004.

A Yazoo County grand jury indicted a relative of the three victims, Earnest Lee Hargon, 45, on three counts capital one murder. If the jury returns a guilty verdict in the case, the jury will have to decide whether to recommend the death penalty or a life sentence.

A jury pool of 138 was selected out of 218 individuals who showed up Monday for screening. Marshall County Circuit Court sent out 500 summons for prospective jurors, according to Lucy Carpenter, circuit clerk of Marshall County. At day’s end, 115 residents remained in the jury pool. Before dismissing the pool, Yazoo County Circuit Court Judge Jannie Lewis broke the pool up into subgroups of 12 who were scheduled to meet with prosecutors and defense attorneys individually Tuesday and Wednesday. A jury of 12 and four alternates will be selected and transported to Yazoo County where they will be sequestered until the trial is finished.

“I really think this is an historic event for Marshall County,” Carpenter said.

Judge Lewis explained the two-step jury selection process - proceedings to see if a person is qualified to serve and then exemptions and excuses that allows for dismissal from the selection process. Following those two steps a Voir Dire process for trying the case and a Voir Dire for the death penalty occur in capital murder trials, she said.

Monday the selection process moved through steps one and two and Voir Dire for the trial.

A number of prospective jurors were dismissed after failing to meet the legal qualifications to serve on a jury. A juror can be winnowed out of the jury pool under the following criteria:

  • must be at least 21 or older. No one met that exemption.
  • must be a legal resident of Marshall County. About five individuals were exempted who live in either Tate, DeSoto, Tippah and Panola counties or in Memphis.
  • must be able to read and write. About seven were excused on this exemption.
  • must not be a convicted felon. One person was dismissed for having written bad checks.
  • can be exempted due to personal illness or the illness of a family member. About 24 were exempted from serving in the jury pool.
  • can be exempted if serving on a jury will cause a serious financial loss and the person is self-employed. About 13, among them truckers, farmers, computer specialists, distributors, attorneys, contractors or those who are paid on commission were exempted.
  • have other legal excuses. Eight were released from duty because they are 65 years of age or older. About five were full-time students and were let go.

After the jury pool was finalized Monday after lunch break, Judge Lewis explained Voir Dire, a latin phrase meaning to speak the truth.

She said the United States Constitution guarantees a defendant a fair and impartial jury. Jurors must be able to lay aside preconceived notions about the case, biases, sympathies, prejudices.

“If you cannot lay aside life experiences then that would not be fair and impartial,” Lewis said. “Look within your hearts, minds and souls and determine whether you can be fair and impartial. Be open, honest and candid with the court.”

Lewis read the three indictments against Hargon and asked whether anyone in the pool believed Hargon is guilty just because he is charged. Non raised their hands.

She asked if anyone was related to the victims or had relatives who were, if anyone was related to the attorneys prosecuting or defending the case or their associates. No one said they had.

Between 20 and 30 prospective jurors said they had heard something about the alleged murders.

Of those 24 people said they either had already formed an opinion or could not lay aside what they had heard about the case if selected as a juror.

About 19 individuals said they could not give the defendant presumption of innocence.

Three persons said they could have a personal disagreement with the law that they could not set aside in order to follow the law of the court. With that the court ended its part of the Voir Dire.

District Attorney James Powell summarized what evidence the state intends to put on and explained what a person has heard from media coverage or otherwise is not evidence.

The only evidence - testimony of witnesses and exhibits - will be that presented in court, he said.

He asked if anyone would vote to convict if the state rested without putting on any evidence. There was no show of hands to those questions.

He said the system of justice would not work if anyone could not set aside a hardship - being sequestered in a hotel room, unable to pay attention because of medication, or for personal circumstances.

Three people said they would have difficulty staying awake. About 17 said they would be distracted by personal circumstances and matters.

Three said they could not reach a verdict because of religious or moral beliefs regarding sitting in judgement.

None said they have strong ties to law enforcement officers who investigated the case.

Attorney for the defense, Wesley Evans, asked for a show of hands from anyone who felt they could not give the defendant presumption of innocence after hearing the prosecuting attorney’s opening statement. About 14 people said they could not. About five or six people showed hands when he asked if they were a victim of a violent crime or had a family member who was a victim.

About 20 people said they have close family members who served in law enforcement. Most said they could render fair and impartial judgement.

About 20 raised their hands when the pool was asked if anyone could not be fair because the alleged homicide involved a child.

At the end of the day, Judge Lewis called the names of 23 individuals who attorneys and the court had agreed to exempt from the jury pool based on the Voir Dire process.

As of Tuesday morning, five additional prospective jurors were dismissed.

The trial could begin as early as Thursday of this week, providing a jury has been selected Wednesday. Prospective jurors were instructed to come back Wednesday at 2 p.m. with suitcases packed.

In the courtroom were two family members of the victims and two victim’s advocates with Survival Inc., a support group for victims of violent crime.

The victims’ advocacy group serves a 33 county area in north Mississippi.

“We are here to support the victims physically and emotionally,” said Carolyn Clayton of Saltillo. Advocate Jo Anderson of Chickasaw County said Survival Inc., provides help through support groups, sending support to victims on the anniversary of their loved ones death, and by providing grief packets.

For more information on Survival, call 1-888-915-7788.

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