The first eight members of the jury in the Jacquetta Simmons trial were selected today in an day-long session aimed at weeding out those who may not be able to fairly weigh evidence in the case.
Local and regional media coverage of the 27-year-old Simmons, who allegedly punched a 70-year-old employee of Walmart on Christmas Eve, has been intense and each prospective juror was asked how he or she found out about the case.
Jurors who read about the story in print and online and admitted to drawing a conclusion about the guilt or innocence of Simmons didn't make the cut.
The eight selected, along with most of the remaining prospective jurors -- 12 must be selected, plus alternates -- either hadn't heard about the case prior to today or had minimal media exposure, such as hearing or seeing a broadcast report in December.
While District Attorney Lawrence Friedman and defense attorney Earl Key quizzed prospective jurors about media coverage, they also focused on issues ranging from how views on race might impact their ability to weigh the evidence and whether they had any other conflicts of interest.
The jury selection process began at 10 a.m. with 73 prospective jurors from throughout Genesee County. The first 18 were seated in the jury box in a random drawing. Judge Robert C. Noonan then quizzed jurors about their prior knowledge of the case.
While some jurors disclosed prior knowledge and made-up minds, they weren't asked immediately to leave the jury box during the morning session. All were eventually dismissed however. In the afternoon, after the first eight jurors were sworn in, Judge Noonan began dimissing prospective jurors as quickly as they expressed any sort of fixed bias in the case.
After the first eight were chosen, the other 10 remaining in the jury box were dismissed and a second group of 18 were seated. By 5 o'clock, there were 18 men and women in the box who expressed no obvious bias or conflict of interest and that was how the day ended.
In the morning session, with the initial group of prospective jurors, Friedman and Key questioned the group and individual jurors.
Friedman started off by asking questions about the ability of jurors to weigh evidence based on what was presented in court, without any outside influence, and whether they could fairly judge circumstantial evidence. He asked whether jurors could recognize truth from falsehood, and more specifically, how they might judge intent, and if they've had experiences, pro or con, with store employees asking to review a receipt for purchases.
In order to win a conviction, the prosecution must is prove Simmons intended to seriously injure the alleged victim.
Simmons is also the first person in Genesee County charged under a two-year-old New York law which makes it a more serious violent felony for a person more than 10 years younger to hit a victim 65 years of age or older.
Friedmen asked prospective jurors if they had any objection to such a law and none present did.
Then the DA wanted to know if each prospective juror could make his or her decision based on the facts and evidence in the case, with no bias based on race -- the defendant is black and the alleged victim is white.
All prospective jurors, which at this time included one African-American man, said race would not be a factor.
Key also asked questions about weighing evidence fairly, and just before asking his first race-related question, he wanted to find out if any of the jurors might succomb to peer pressure.
He asked a female juror, "If (the African-American prospective juror) absolutely believes my client is absolutely guilty and you don't, will you cave in?"
The woman said she wouldn't.
Key, then said, "I don't don't expect this case to be about race whatsoever, because it will be decided on the facts of the case, but would you tend to one side or the other because of race?"
Key, whose courtroom demeanor is affable and even jocular at times, wanted to know if any jurors harbored racial bias.
"I've had people tell me they don't like black people and it's absolutely fine," Key said with a broad smile. "Just don't come over to my house."
Nearly all of the prospective jurors laughed. None revealed any sort of racial bias.
Race could be a factor in the case because Simmons allegedly made racially charged comments during the encounter with alleged victim Grace Souzzi.
By the afternoon, the lone black in the prospective jury pool had been sent home with no explanation given for his dismissal.
After the hearing, Key said he didn't want to comment on the jury selection while the process was ongoing. He also said "I don't want to try the case in the media," and that everything would be clear after opening statements.
In all, more than two dozen prospective jurors were dismissed after revealing they had read about the events either in print or online media and formed an opinion based on those reports.
Fewer than a half dozen of the 60 or so prospective jurors hadn't heard of the case at all prior to today.
The Batavian first broke the story of a person hitting a Walmart employee on Dec. 24 and first reported the arrest of Simmons on Dec. 25.
Other regional media outlets started reporting the story on Dec. 26. Many of the prospective jurors who hadn't followed the case closely said they first heard about the case on television, radio or read it in a newspaper around that time.
As the proceedings concluded today, there are 18 prospective jurors in the jury box and 14 in the gallery whose number hasn't been called yet.
Jury selection resumes at 10 a.m., Tuesday. Once the panel is selected, Noonan will spend about an hour on jury instructions and then the defense and prosecution will offer opening statements.
CLARIFICATIONS: While no explanation was given for the dismissal of the prospective African-American juror, that procecure applies to numerous other prospective jurors who were dimissed for cause or as part of either defense or prosecution challenges. The point we meant to make is that while it was clear why several of the prospective jurors were dismissed, we don't know the reason this (as with several others) juror was dismissed. Also, the prosecution needs only to prove intent to cause physical injury. Simmons is being tried on a single charge of assualt, 2nd, being a person 10 years younger against a person over age 65. The original charge of assault, 2nd, was reduced to assault, 3rd, (a misdemeanor) by Judge Noonan. Following the ruling, the prosecution moved to dismiss the assault, 3rd, charge.