Jury selection begins in Brianna Denison murder
Associated Press Writer
RENO – It took less than an hour Monday to confirm a Nevada judge’s suspicions that it will be difficult to seat a jury to try the man accused of killing one college coed and assaulting two other women near the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
Each of the first 75 potential jurors called for the high-profile murder case indicated they already know something about the kidnapping and killing of 19-year-old Brianna Denison.
James Biela, the 29-year-old Sparks pipe fitter accused of strangling her to death in January 2008, also is charged with sexually assaulting two others in a string of attacks that police claim was the work of a serial rapist.
“I recognize there has been a lot of publicity about this case,” Washoe District Judge Robert Perry told the potential jurors on Monday. “Is there anybody who doesn’t think they have heard or seen a single thing about Brianna Denison, about this case?”
No one raised a hand.
Due to the media coverage of the case that gripped the entire city for nearly a year, lawyers on both sides believe it will take days, perhaps as long as a week, to come up with a dozen jurors and two alternates. The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
By noon, Perry had excused more than a dozen jurors, the first a young woman who is a student at UNR. She felt she could not be impartial due to her gender and age and “some of the causes” she’s been involved with.
Another was dismissed partly because he knew Denison and his son went to school with her at Reno High School. Another said her brother is currently jailed with Biela, who for the first time appeared in court in a blue blazer and tie on Monday instead of the orange jail jumpsuit and shackles he’d been wearing in past appearances.
Most of the others the judge let go on Monday had cited moral or religious opposition to the death penalty, which could be imposed if Biela is convicted of murder.
Three panels of 75 potential jurors each have been retained for the case. The first panel called before the judge on Monday included laborers, homemakers, a dentist, casino security officer, retired air traffic controller, baby sitter, bartender and wildland firefighter.
Perry appealed to them to be honest about whether they could put aside their biases and prejudices to give Biela a fair trail given all the publicity.
The judge said the media “presents the facts as they know and understand them to be.”
“But the press is not tested by cross-examination. They don’t necessarily ask about biases – ‘Which side are you on?”‘ he said. “This case will be determined based on the evidence presented in this courtroom, not on the basis of anything else.”
When one juror said he didn’t think he could be impartial “because of how closely I followed the case,” Perry suggested he may “hear a lot of things you haven’t heard before” and end up with a different opinion.
One juror who said he could never vote in favor of the death penalty noted that he lives “on the water and I couldn’t kill a fish. I would feel it.”
Deputy District Attorney Elliott Sattler explained that he wouldn’t actually be conducting the execution, just voting for it. He then pressed him further, asking if he could vote to put to death someone like Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin who were responsible for the deaths of millions.
“Wouldn’t they deserve it?” Sattler asked.
“They probably would,” the man answered. “I just could not impose it.”
Another woman said she was a staunch Catholic and doesn’t believe “anyone has the right to make that decision.”
Perry indicated he, too, was Catholic but had taken an oath to uphold the law.
“We Catholics used to burn them at the stake,” the judge said during a light moment. “In fact, that kept me in line most of life until about sixth grade when I figured out we didn’t do that anymore.”