Jury selection for Mack trial moving slowly
October 1, 2007
RENO – The slow process of trying to seat an impartial jury began Monday in the highly publicized trial of a man accused of killing his estranged wife and shooting the judge handling their divorce.
District Judge Douglas Herndon rejected a bid to move Darren Mack’s trial out of Reno after defense attorneys questioned whether the former wealthy pawn shop owner can get a fair trial in a case that generated nationwide media attention and intense local interest.
Instead, the judge questioned a panel of 51 potential jurors on their opinions in the case, their past dealings with the law and judicial system, and whether they know any of the 220 people on the witness list.
Potential jurors were dismissed for cause if they indicated any bias against Mack or the judicial system, or if a personal hardship would prevent them from serving. By evening eight had been excused.
Each prospective juror was required to fill out a five-page questionnaire before being summoned.
After initial screening, prosecutors and defense lawyers questioned potential jurors individually about their opinions of the case.
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Once jurors are screened for cause, each side will be allowed to remove eight. Court officials expect it could take four days to seat a jury of 12 plus three alternates.
One prospective juror who made it through the first phase of the selection process is a physician going through his third divorce. During one of his marriages, he told the court that his wife, who was suicidal, had slashed the throat of his 7-year-old son because she was going to take him with her into death.
He said his wife was prosecuted and the boy survived, and now they enjoy a continuing relationship.
Mack, 46, is accused in the stabbing death of his estranged wife, Charla, on June 12, 2006. Authorities allege he then drove to downtown Reno and shot Family Court Judge Chuck Weller through the third-floor window of his chambers. Weller, who was handling the couple’s bitter divorce, was shot in the chest and has since recovered.
Mack surrendered 11 days later after fleeing to Mexico. He is charged with murder and attempted murder, and has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
Early Monday, defense lawyers David Chesnoff and Scott Freeman filed a new motion for a change of venue, seeking to move the trial to Las Vegas because of an “inundation of media.”
Since Mack’s arrest more than year ago, Chesnoff said there’s been intense coverage in the local newspaper and on Internet blogs. He said early comments made by Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick and on the city of Reno’s Web site on the status of the case, further fueled interest.
The judge, prosecutors and Chesnoff are each from Las Vegas. They were brought in after Gammick removed himself from the case. All the judges in the Washoe District Court were recused by a court order.
Chesnoff said granting a venue change before the trial begins is needed “to avoid even the possibility we’ll be revisiting whether we should have done it.”
Special prosecutor Robert Daskas argued it was too early to say whether a fair jury can be seated.
“It’s still premature,” he said, adding that he, co-prosecutor Christopher Lalli, the judge and defense lawyers “have all gone to great lengths to get rid of everyone” who has an unwavering opinion of Mack’s guilt.
The judge agreed, and the jury process began.
Last week, lawyers and the judge excused 70 from a pool of about 400 based on their answers to the questionnaire.