For the first time in seven years, Minnehaha County is selecting a jury to decide if a murderer should live or die.
I’m speaking, of course, of James McVay, the one-time worshipper of Satan, would-be assassin and repeat felon who broke into a Sioux Falls woman’s home, slashed her throat and stole her car just days after his release from segregated confinement at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
McVay pleaded guilty but mentally ill to first-degree murder in Dec. 2011.
My guess is that none of the hundreds of people called as potential jurors, whose names were pulled from voter rolls and driver’s registration records, relish the opportunity to decide whether a person should live or die. One would hope, anyway.
As Judge Peter Lieberman said yesterday, however, a mere squeamishness at the thought of issuing a death sentence is not enough to get one out of jury service in the case.
There are some things that will get a person booted from a jury in Minnehaha County, though. Most of them have nothing to do with the idea that the McVay case is a death case.
Jury duty is part of our jobs as citizens, so people are expected to serve, but in my experience, judges and lawyers in Sioux Falls tend to aim for people who can be impartial, thoughtful and attentive during trial.
Note: None of the following is meant to serve as an instruction on how to get out of jury duty. What follows are simply a series of observations from a part of the criminal process that normally gets little media coverage.
Have a sick wife/husband/child at home who needs frequent medical attention? Does this wife/husband/child have a series of doctor’s appointments coming up? Are you the only one who can provide the transportation there?
That’s usually ground for dismissal. It’s hard to give your full attention to jury service if you’re worried that your loved one might hurt themselves without you there.
Some job-related stuff can get you dismissed, as well, particularly if the jury service will be long. Two teachers were dismissed yesterday because they were concerned about sticking their students with substitutes for two to three weeks.
A middle school teacher said some of her eighth graders were taking high school courses and needed help preparing for tests. A kindergarten teacher said she was worried about maintaining order in her class if the youngsters were volleyed from sub to sub for that long.
Both teachers were dismissed.
Another woman was dismissed for school-related issues. She’s a pre-nursing student who watches her kid part time and needs to maintain a C average to be considered for her nursing program.
If she were thinking of all those responsibilities, she wouldn’t be thinking of the trial, the judge said.
A single mother of six just starting an after-school job? That wasn’t quite enough, although the mother eventually was dismissed.
Prosecutors asked about gory photos and asked potential jurors if seeing them would unfairly prejudice their decision by stirring emotion. The woman said she was a past victim of domestic violence and that she’d have a hard time weighing evidence that involved violence to a woman.
Being busy and important at work alone is not enough, though. One guy told the lawyers that he’s part-owner in a business, that there are projects coming up, and that his co-workers rely on him.
“Wouldn’t that be true in any trial?” the judge asked.
Sure, he said, but this one will be really long. Eventually, he was excused for cause anyway. He said his religious beliefs would keep him from considering a sentence of death.
Judge Lieberman told jurors that those selected to serve would need to be at least open to considering both options for McVay’s sentence: Life in prison or death by lethal injection.
A handful of other questions came up, too. Does anyone have a personal connection to mental illness? What about drug use/abuse (McVay induced hallucinations with alcohol and cough syrup)? Plenty of jurors talked about personal connections, but none were dismissed.
The Wednesday dismissals that we know about came during the group questioning in the morning and early afternoon. Surely more jurors were released on Wednesday during individual voir dire, a closed interview designed to allow even more prying and personal questions about potential biases.
Jury selection in McVay’s case is expected to take at least two weeks, perhaps longer. Death cases always are difficult, as the weight of the decision is so intense.
At least in this case, jurors won’t need screening for potential biases about the defendant’s triple-minority status. The last death case involved Daphne Wright, a woman who is gay, black and deaf. Potential jurors in that case, as you might imagine, were subjected to a plethora of personal questions about their own prejudices and moral stances.