Opening statements to be heard in Stafford murder trial today

Opening statements in the murder trial of Derrick Stafford will begin at 9 a.m. today.

Although the tedious work of selecting a jury is among the most important in the trial process, it is not the kind of dramatic action most would expect from a case that has drawn national and worldwide attention to the small city of Marksville. The attorneys selected 12 jurors as of Thursday and the two alternates were picked Friday morning.

There was some drama Thursday afternoon when attorneys for Derrick Stafford filed an emergency writ with the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to overrule 12th Judicial District Judge Billy Bennett’s Monday denial of their motion to postpone the murder trial. The 3rd Circuit denied that motion a few hours later. Attorneys Jonathan Goins and Christopher LaCour said the trial should be delayed to give them time to prepare a defense against a new expert witness for the prosecution. The attorneys would also like more time to find a “use of force” expert witness for the trial.

Jury selection continued even as 3rd Circuit Clerk of Court personnel were receiving and preparing the writ for the appellate judges’ review.

The murder trial of Derrick Stafford will no doubt wear the title “Trial of the Century” unless or until some other high-profile tragedy takes its place.

“TRIAL OF THE CENTURY”

Stafford is charged with the 2nd degree murder of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis and attempted 2nd degree murder of the child's father, Christopher Few, at a traffic stop in Marksville on Nov. 3, 2015.

The child, seated in the front seat of the car, was hit by five of the 18 bullets fired at the vehicle and died at the scene. Few was seriously wounded but survived.

Stafford and co-defendant Norris Greenhouse Jr. were moonlighting as Ward 2/Marksville City deputy marshals at the time of the incident. Greenhouse is scheduled for trial on June 12.

Following is a day-by-day summary of the first week’s courtroom events.

DAY 1 - MONDAY

Security was tight at the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse and the small courtroom was overwhelmed by the large number of prospective jurors complying with the subpoena to appear for possible jury duty.

In addition to prospective jurors, family of the victims and Stafford, media reporters and potential witnesses were also in attendance. The court issued 300 subpoenas for Monday and another 300 for Tuesday.

Jury selection was interrupted when defense attorneys asked Bennett to postpone the trial to give them time to prepare a line of defense based on a recently hired expert witness for the prosecution. Bennett denied that motion.

Prosecutor John Sinquefield filed a motion asking Bennett to reinstate a “gag order” on attorneys in the case. The move was made in light of the defense attorneys’ interviews with media concerning the possibility that a third officer may have fired at Few’s vehicle.

Bennett said he would consider the request for the gag order.

In their argument for a postponement, the defense attorneys contended they were notified the Friday before jury selection began that the state had acquired a new expert witness. Goins said it was a “miscarriage of justice” to go forward with the trial.

Sinquefield said the state had to obtain a ballistics expert to counter Goins’ comments that a third officer also fired at the car on Nov. 3, 2015. That possibility was raised earlier this month, but Sinquefield said the defense attorneys have had the diagrams on which they base their theory for more than a year and never raised it before.

Because the defense raises the possibility that Marksville P.D. Sgt. Kenneth Parnell -- whose body camera caught the shooting incident on video -- also shot at the car, the state contacted a ballistics expert to address that claim.

"They (defense attorneys) created this, not the state," he said.

State co-counsel Matthew Derbes said the prosecution had a responsibility to check out Goins’ allegation, just in case it might exonerate Stafford.

The interview process, called voir dire (pronounced “vwa deer”) resulted in six jurors sworn in, leaving six more and two alternates to be selected that first day.

DAY 2 - TUESDAY

In stark contrast to Monday, the courthouse was relatively calm with only a few reporters and observers in the courtroom to watch the team of Sinquefield-Derbes take on the Goins-LaCour duo in interviewing prospective jurors and then playing a game of chess in weeding out those they didn’t want.

After the second multi-member panel of possible jurors was interviewed, only one was acceptable to both sides.

Bennett told the newly selected juror to call the courthouse around noon Wednesday to be told whether he needed to be in court at 1:30 p.m. for the start of the trial.

“The odds are slim that you will be needed by then,” the judge noted.

Both sides sought to have several of that group dismissed "for cause," alleging they could not be fair and impartial for various reasons.

Bennett denied those requests, saying he believed all of the challenged juror candidates had indicated they would be willing to do their job as a juror -- even one who said he would "have a problem" voting to convict on a charge that carried a life sentence, which is the mandatory sentence for 2nd degree murder.

Bennett gently chided the prosecutors and defense counsel for selecting one or two "questionable" comments out of a prospective juror's day-long answers to questions and then attempting to develop a "for cause" challenge to avoid using one of their 12 discretionary challenges to remove unacceptable jurors.

The judge told the attorneys that jurors cannot be excused for cause because of “one or two comments they make” during the interview process.

“If we pick and choose one or two comments and disregard the rest of their testimony, probably even the Pope would not pass muster to be a juror in this court,” Bennett said.

Even with no testimony, there was a little bit of interaction between the attorneys.

During his questioning of prospective jurors, LaCour used the example of the weather to make a point that things aren’t always what they appear to be. He said that sometimes you wake up and the ground is wet, the concrete’s wet and you are positive it had rained the night before.

However, he said, sometimes the dew is so heavy that it looks like rain, but it didn’t rain.

Sinquefield interrupted, telling Bennett “this is not voir dire, it is closing arguments. This is not appropriate at this time.”

“I’m done,” LaCour said, and sat down.

DAY 3 - WEDNESDAY

After a morning of interviewing another panel of potential jurors, the attorneys agreed on four more.

In the afternoon session, the remaining members of that panel were excused from consideration and a new 14-member panel went through individual interviews. Of that number, about half indicated they had strong opinions as to Stafford’s guilt.

Some of those indicated their opinion could be changed if there was evidence that has not been presented in the media accounts they have seen, heard and read.

Goins raised an issue that has been expected to be a part of the overall defense -- whether a juror could vote to convict on a lesser charge, such as negligent homicide -- if he felt the evidence supported the less serious crime.

The tension between the two teams of attorneys surfaced again Wednesday when Goins asked why Sinquefield only asked blacks if they would be willing to vote to convict when the sentence would be life without parole.

Bennett pointed out that Goins’ observation was not completely accurate.

Sinquefield said he is concerned about how any potential juror feels about the mandatory life sentence issue. For the rest of the interview process, the prosecutors asked all potential jurors about their thoughts on condemning a man to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Sinquefield said Goins was “hypocritical” in making the race-based challenge in the first place, noting that all nine of the defense’s discretionary challenges have been to dismiss white jury candidates.

At the end of the day, the defense had three of its 12 discretionary challenges left while the state still had nine.

DAY 4 - THURSDAY
Prospective jurors were interviewed one-by-one Thursday with several dismissed for having a firm opinion on the case.

Goins asked about their opinion on “justifiable homicide” and the right for a person to protect himself with deadly force if he is in fear of “death or great bodily harm” for himself or others.

Sinquefield informed the individuals that Stafford “is innocent until proven guilty” and “does not have to do anything in court except show up.”

The state, on the other hand, “must prove every element of their case,” he said. “If an element of self-defense is raised, the state also has to prove that there was no justification”.

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