Ferguson, Mo., unrest prominent theme in jury selection for Detroit officer’s trial
Detroit – — Racial tensions, the use of military equipment by police and the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, officer were central themes Tuesday during the second day of jury selection in the case of Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley.
Weekley, whose gun discharged during a May 2010 raid and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, is accused of involuntary manslaughter and careless or reckless discharge of a weapon. His first trial in June 2013 ended with a hung jury.
Tuesday’s proceedings in Wayne Circuit Court ended with 27 members of the jury pool being excused, many of whom said they would be biased by the events in Ferguson if chosen for the Weekley panel.
Assistant Prosecutor Robert Moran and Weekley’s attorney, Steve Fishman, reminded several potential jurors the two cases were not related, even if both involved white officers shooting African-Americans. But some members of the jury pool said they couldn’t separate the two.
Weekley led a crew from the Detroit Police Special Response team into the home on the city’s east side, searching for Aiyana’s father, Charles Jones, and a family friend, Chauncey Owens. Police said Owens had fatally shot 17-year-old Je’Rean Blake for looking at him the wrong way.
Owens was convicted of first-degree murder while Jones was convicted of second-degree murder for handing Owens the weapon used in the shooting. Jones is on the prosecutor’s witness list.
Seconds after Weekley entered the home on Lillibridge, his gun discharged, killing Aiyana, who was asleep on the living room couch. Weekley said the girl’s grandmother, Mertilla Jones, slapped his gun, causing it to fire, while she contended during testimony Weekley entered her home intending to kill someone, and that he put the gun to Aiyana’s head and shot her execution-style.
The case garnered national attention and criticism from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and activist Al Sharpton. Because of the volatile nature of the case and because of widespread criticism of police officers in the wake of the Brown shooting, Fishman last week filed a motion asking to have the trial delayed. The request was denied by Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway.
The Brown case came up several times Tuesday.
Four of the 17 questions on a questionnaire for potential jurors centered on the Brown shooting. Another question asked jury candidates how they felt about the “militarization of police.”
On Tuesday, Hathaway dismissed some members for various reasons, including religious issues, before calling in 15 prospective jurors individually for questioning, based on what they’d written in their questionnaires.
During questioning, an African-American woman indicated she had strong opinions about the Brown shooting, and wrote, “Michael Brown was essentially guilty of being black in the wrong place.”
Another jury candidate, a white man, wrote what he’d seen on television about the Brown case could influence him in the Weekley case. He wrote “Michael Brown robbed a store and strong-armed the owner.”
A third man, also white, said he could put aside his preconceived notions about the Brown case, but added: “As far as racial tensions, it’s an ongoing problem between police and African Americans in (Ferguson).”
Fishman told the man to be wary of television and newspaper accounts of the case, adding the media often “stirs up trouble.”
“Maybe (the media) would like Mr. Moran and me to get into a fistfight in the courtroom,” he said. “This ain’t Ferguson. There is obviously the racial component of a white police officer who shot a little black girl.
“People are edgy on the issue of race, but that won’t come up in the trial. I guarantee the prosecutor isn’t going to say you should convict Mr. Weekley because he’s white and the little girl was black; and I won’t say you should let him off because he’s a white guy.”
A black man said the events in Ferguson would “definitely influence” his decision if picked for the Weekley jury.
“I would come in with some bias,” he said, adding one of his best friends lived in Ferguson.
The last potential juror questioned, also a black man, said he had problems with police using military equipment, including machine guns like the one Weekley used during the raid of Aiyana’s house.
“Military equipment and machine guns don’t have any place here — this is not Iraq or Iran,” the man said. “In certain cases it may be necessary, but not in a search warrant.”
Among the potential jurors was a judge who said she knew most of the people involved in the case. Fishman told the judge he sometimes golfed with the woman and her husband, but neither he, Moran nor the judge dismissed her from the pool.
After Tuesday’s proceedings, Hathaway said she expects to have the 14 finalists — 12 jurors and two alternates — seated by the end of the day Wednesday. The judge said Monday she expects the trial to last about three weeks.