Lawyers in McVay death case begin questioning jurors
March 19. 2014 1:44PM
Lawyers have begun questioning the potential jurors who will decide the fate of a Texas native facing a possible death sentence for the murder of a 75-year-old woman in 2011.
Hundreds of jurors filled out questionnaires on Monday about their feelings on the death penalty, their knowledge of the case, and their familiarity with the police, lawyers, the victim and perpetrator, 43-year-old James Vernon McVay.
On Wednesday, the first 30 potential jurors were brought in for questioning in a process that will repeat each day for at least two weeks: Prosecutors and defense lawyers will ask questions in a group in the morning and individually in the afternoon.
McVay pleaded guilty but mentally ill to first-degree murder in December 2011 for the killing of Maybelle Schein. The 12 jurors and three alternates ultimately chosen to hear the case will decide if McVay deserves a sentence of death or life in prison for her murder.
Judge Peter Lieberman told jurors that the goal is to find jurors in “the middle of the road,” who will be able to consider either a life sentence or a sentence of death, absent strong moral or religious objections to capital punishment or strong support for it.
“What we want on this jury is someone who can consider both possibilities,” Lieberman said.
Three prosecutors and three defense lawyers sat at tables facing jurors during the group interviews. McVay, wearing a blue button-down shirt and a tie, sat between two of his lawyers from the Minnehaha County Public Defender’s Office.
After introductions from the judge, Public Defender Traci Smith started with basic questions for the 30 prospective jurors, looking for things that might make it difficult for them to sit through the trial or to be impartial during the proceedings.
One woman, a middle school teacher, was excused after saying she had a class full of middle school students whose test scores would suffer if she were to disappear for up to three weeks. A middle-aged man was excused because he and his wife had planned a trip to Colorado to visit their daughter during the trial.
Some were excused based on prior knowledge about the case or intimate knowledge about those involved. One woman, who knew Ms. Schein personally broke down in tears as she spoke, saying “I don’t it to ever happen again.”
As she left the courtroom, McVay said “I’m sorry.”
The questions about the morality of the death penalty didn’t begin until after noon. By 1 p.m., five jurors were excused based on serious doubts about their ability to consider the imposition of a death sentence.
One man, calling himself a lifelong Catholic, said there are no circumstances under which he’d consider voting for lethal injection.
“At the end of the day, there's no way I could vote for the death penalty," he said. "I believe in life from conception to death.”
To earn a sentence of death, prosecutors will attempt to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one aggravating factor exists in McVay’s case. If they find that one exists, the defense will be able to present evidence of mitigating factors that could spare McVay’s life.
Jurors will return this afternoon for the second phase of questioning.