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Jury questionnaire sent out in sniper case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lawyers involved in the triple murder "sniper" case against Shawn Thomas Lester, set for the end of the month, have begun the sometimes-difficult task of selecting 12 impartial citizens to sit as jurors in next month's trial.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom said last week that about 160 Kanawha County residents received jury questionnaires in the mail last month. He expects to send out 500 more questionnaires next week in hopes that at least half of the people will respond.

Eighteen jurors -- 12 regulars and six alternates -- will make up the final panel. The trial could take four to six weeks, according to the questionnaire.

The questionnaire asks dozens of questions, including whether respondents know any of about 150 people who might be called as witnesses at the trial.

It also contains at least four questions about where prospective jurors get their TV news, which could give lawyers a clue as to jurors' political leanings.

The four questions ask how often respondents watch the news on CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC and Fox News.

"Generally, I think it's very invasive from a juror perspective," said Joseph Rice, of the Jury Research Institute, a consulting firm based in California.

Theoretically, the ideological distinctions are important to determine how much trust the juror places in authority, Rice said. Conservative jurors, for example, may be more likely to believe police officers, while liberal jurors may be more likely to question the power of the justice system.

But it's not even clear that ideological affiliation plays a role the quality of the jury panel, Rice said.

"I rarely find that party affiliation is a variable that tells the difference between a pro-prosecution and pro-defense person," he said.

The questions, however, should not be posed so bluntly, Rice said. Closed-ended questions could pin an incorrect label on a person.

"I'd ask them more softly," Rice said. "I'd ask them if they listen or watch cable news channels, and let them identify them.

"If you pose an open-ended question, you'll get the data."

Both assistant Kanawha County prosecutor Maryclaire Akers and Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle don't believe the jury questions are invasive.

"I would honestly characterize that jury questionnaire as probably the most vanilla we've come up with," Akers said.

According to Castelle, who is representing Lester, West Virginia case law encourages extensive and open jury questioning. Because of the media attention the Lester case has received thus far, it's necessary to determine how much exposure the jurors have to news sources, he said.

Ideological questions are pretty typical for prospective jurors in criminal cases around the country, said Greg Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts.

"In general, attorneys are asking questions to make sure someone doesn't have a clear-cut bias against the case and hopefully finds jurors that favor their position somewhat," Hurley said. "The [question type] gears toward ruling someone out."

Questions about television shows are especially common in criminal cases, Hurley said. For instance, lawyers may ask jurors how much they watch crime dramas like "CSI" or "Law and Order" to determine whether or not they have unrealistic expectations about how investigations work. Those questions weren't included on the Lester jury questionnaire.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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