January 12th, 2006 - Day 4: Picking A Jury: Mind-Numbing Minutia That Means Everything

Picking the jury for a murder trial is a little like handicapping a Derby winner: You can study it up all you want, but in the end, you never know how it's going to come out until the nag crosses the finish line.

And just to make the analogy a little tighter: Imagine that when you pick your Derby horse, you'll be betting every cent that you have, including the house, the car, your 401K and grandma's diamond ring.

That's about the chore facing David Ray Camm's defense team as they search for the right 12 people to find their client innocent. Pick wrong and Camm goes away for a long, long time.

The prosecution doesn't have quite the same thing at stake, but if they don't get the right jury, they risk, in their eyes, freeing a man whom they think killed his wife and kids.

Jury selection is arguably the most important part of a trial; at the same time, it's one of the most mind numbingly boring processes to watch.

Like playing the ponies, some have a system.

"There's not much science to it; it's more of an art," said Steven Owen, the chief deputy Floyd County prosecutor who is handling this part of the trial while his boss, Keith Henderson, works on getting co-defendant Charles Boney locked up for life in Floyd County.

Some folks don't want anything to do with jury duty; others are anxious (secretly or not) to serve on a jury like the David Camm murder trial.

Owen says he prefers those who don't want to serve versus those who do.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves; let's first talk the nuts and bolts of picking the people, the initial group, called the jury pool.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees that those accused are entitled to "a jury of their peers."

Well, who are David Camm's peers, especially since this thing is being tried in Warrick County, about 100 miles away from the scene of the crime and where Camm grew up.

Are Camm's peers men? Do they live in the country (like he did), as opposed to the city? Are they whites only? Are they police officers -- David Camm was an Indiana State Trooper for several years before he resigned four months before the murders.

As long as the pool is randomly selected (by computer, in this day and age) from across the community, they are, by legal definition, Camm's peers, irrespective of gender, socio-economic class or anything else.

And there is no such thing as affirmative action in the process. When co-defendant Charles Boney's pool was called, much was made of the fact that there were few African Americans on it. Boney is black.

But since Floyd County is only about three percent African American, the state had a relatively low burden in sending the original summonses. Never mind how many blacks ultimately wound up Boney's 12-member jury (none); the burden was met with the randomness of the original selection process.

Prospective jurors receive a multi-page questionnaire, the contents of which are agreed to by both sides during pre-trial hearings in the months leading up to the trial. They are asked about everything, from how many alcoholic beverages they consume to if they have a membership at the Louisville Zoo.

The questionnaires are returned weeks ahead of the scheduled jury duty date to give both sides time to research and build a database, looking for their winners.

Because the Warrick County Judicial Center doesn't have an assembly hall large enough to bring the entire pool in at once, the prospective jurors are brought to court in groups of roughly 15 each, on staggered dates.

This part is where you watch and see how fascinating it can be to see paint dry.

The judge, defense and prosecution lawyers then spend hours questioning the prospective jurors both as a group and individually during a process call voir dire (seek the truth).

The first thing they want to find out is what everyone knows about the case and if that information has already caused them to form an opinion about Camm's guilt or innocence.

You're not automatically out simply because you've heard about this crime, but since Camm is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, anyone who can't set aside what they think about the case based on what they've heard, read or seen.

Or anyone who thinks he might have done it, could have done it, probably did it or is likely to have done it because he's been arrested is sent home almost immediately.

The next group who are dismissed are those who say serving on this jury would be too much of a hardship. Those who might lose their jobs; those who have a sick child to care for; those here in the Evansville area who suffered tornado damage last year and so on. Neither side wants juror stewing in court everyday simply because they've been forced by a legal summons to be there.

The lawyers then lay out their case in the form of story telling examples, questions and opinion. This part's kind of interesting because you get a snapshot of both the defense and prosecution strategy that's absent in a single dimension piece of paper or court filing.

For example, since David Camm is a former police officer and since police officers will be testifying rather extensively during the trial, the lawyers need to know how the prospective jurors feel about cops.

"Do you believe, Mr. Smith, that police officers can sometimes be wrong during an investigation," is a typical question. "Can you tell us of any examples you've had personally where the police were wrong?" or "Do you know of anyone else that's happened to," and so on.

"I want them to get to know me and me to get to know them," Owen said.

After each side is finished questioning the group (it takes about a day and a half per group), the judge entertains motions to eliminate people for cause. One side or the other may have heard something from a juror that they think would be harmful to their case; that same thing, on the other hand, might be helpful to the opposing side, so there's a legal argument for and against eliminating some people for cause. The judge hears both and then decides. There is no limit to how many people can be eliminated for cause.

In addition, the law in a murder case allows each side to eliminate up to 20 jurors each without having to state any reason whatsoever. These are called preemptory strikes. So if you lose your argument to eliminate for cause, you can then 'spend' one of your preemptory strikes to dump the person.

For her part, Stacy Uliana, one of Camm's lawyers, is looking for "good jurors."

"We want people who believe it's possible that Dave Camm is innocent even though he's been charged," she said.

A good juror to Steve Owen is one who can work well with others, who works well in a group.

"I look for people who are active in things like the Boy Scouts, a church group, people who work in groups at their job," he said.

The lawyers have spent about 48 hours over the last four days questioning about 60 people. They've whittled that down to 17 finalists; 15 are needed to serve on the jury. On Friday, they'll question 14 more and, by all accounts, have the final jury in place to try David Ray Camm by the end of the day.

But even after all that, the chances of either the prosecution or defense bringing home a winner is no better than 50-50. Imagine going to that length to pick your Derby winner later this spring.