Jury selection over in murder trial of Reno man
Associated Press Writer
RENO – After weeding out those with unyielding views on the death penalty, a Nevada judge on Tuesday swore in jurors for the trial of a man accused of kidnapping a 19-year-old college coed and sexually assaulting two other young women.
James Biela, a 28-year-old Sparks pipe fitter, could be sentenced to death if he is convicted of murdering Brianna Denison after abducting her from a friend’s house on the edge of the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Public defenders struggled during two days of selection to find jurors who would consider sparing Biela’s life if he is convicted. If the jury convicts him, it would also decide whether Biela should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole, life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years or 50 years in prison with parole possible after 20 years.
Washoe District Judge Robert Perry denied a defense motion to throw out prospective jurors who say they can’t foresee imposing a sentence that would include the possibility of parole. The ruling came in a testy exchange with public defender James Leslie after Leslie repeatedly pressed one juror who said she might opt for life in prison but suggested parole wasn’t an option.
Leslie argued that the answers of the juror, who told the judge she would consider mitigating circumstances in deciding on a penalty, showed that she was “substantially impaired” and should be dismissed.
“It’s denied,” the judge repeated in a stern voice.
He did agree to dismiss numerous potential jurors who said they could not vote to impose the death penalty under any circumstances and at least one who said he would not consider any penalty other than death if Biela is convicted.
A potential juror who remained in the jury pool Tuesday afternoon was a casino security guard who said he opposed the death penalty but could foresee voting in favor of it under the right circumstances.
“Honestly, the idea that the state can put any citizen to death is to me obscene,” he said. “But we are talking about the law, and I am willing to accept and comply with the law.”
Denison was home on winter break from Santa Barbara Community College in California when she was abducted. Her body was found more than three weeks later in a field beneath a discarded Christmas tree along with two pair of women’s underwear, including one that detectives say was stolen from her friend’s home the night she was kidnapped and was used to strangle her.
Biela was also accused of sexually assaulting two other women in the months before Denison’s abduction. They said their attacker stole their underwear after the assaults in the same area of the UNR campus.
Prosecutors said his fetish for women’s underwear was part of his motive for the attacks. He was arrested in November 2008 after his ex-girlfriend found two pair of women’s thong underwear in his truck, and police later matched his DNA to that found on Denison’s body.
The extensive publicity surrounding the case forced the dismissal of several prospective jurors who had decided Biela was guilty based on the media attention.
Opening arguments were to begin at Wednesday morning before a jury made up of seven men, five women and two alternates – one male, one female.