Michael Curry trial update | Day Two: With 43 in jury pool, court readies for strikes, opening arguments

Proceedings resume at 11 a.m. Wednesday

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 19, 2011 

The first phase of jury selection for the murder trial of accused bush-ax killer Michael Curry wrapped up in daylong court session Tuesday, when 35 more jury candidates were questioned and 30 chosen for the jury pool, with the 13 picked Monday bringing the total to 43.

Muscogee Chief Superior Court Judge John Allen told those who qualified to return to the Columbus Government Center ninth-floor courtroom at 1 p.m. Wednesday. He told attorneys to return at 11 a.m., prepared to make any motions and begin striking jurors to get the final 12 plus 3 alternates to hear the case.

With that schedule, opening arguments likely will begin Wednesday afternoon. Allen expects the trial to take two or three weeks.

The proceedings Tuesday began at 9 a.m., and 24 prospective jurors were in the first set brought up from the jury room. Four of those were culled after they told the court they already had formed an opinion that testimony was not going to change. Each of the two men and two women were questioned privately where only the judge, attorneys and court reporter could hear, and each was allowed to leave afterward.

Shortly before 4 p.m., a second set of 25 candidates was brought in, and two were dismissed for possible bias, one because she was adamant that she already had an opinion of Curry’s guilt, and it would not change.

“I don’t want to be involved in it,” she said of the murder trial.

A second woman said she worked for Columbus attorney Frank Martin, who once represented Curry, and she had an opinion of the case, too. Martin is among the witnesses to be called, and in one of the court’s lighter moments, Allen in speaking of Martin asked her, “Would you believe him under oath?”

Jurors Tuesday were questioned just as they were Monday, with the prosecution asking whether they watch TV crime shows such as “CSI” and “Forensic Files” and believe the high-tech, crime-solving techniques depicted: Do they believe every crime scene has forensic evidence that identifies the perpetrator? Do they believe a defendant can be convicted without such evidence?

Those questions may indicate such evidence is not available or of no value in the horrific bush-ax slayings of Curry’s eight-months’ pregnant wife Ann, 4-year-old daughter Erika and 20-month-old son Ryan, found dead in their 5433 Rockhurst Drive home on Aug. 29, 1985.

After one prospective juror, a barber at Ranger Joe’s in Columbus, said she believed every story has two sides, Curry’s lead defense attorney asked whether she understood that the burden of proof lay with the prosecution, not the defense.

The defense needn’t tell another side to the story if the prosecution can’t prove Curry’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, noted public defender Bob Wadkins.

The court saved some time Tuesday by reading the names of more than 60 witnesses to the two sets of jury candidates before questioning each individual. On Monday the list was read to each juror individually to see whether the person knew witnesses.

Arrested by cold-case investigators on May 20, 2009, in Dalton, Ga., where he had settled after moving from Columbus after the slayings, Curry faces six counts of murder — one count of felony murder and one count of malice murder for each of the three victims.

Malice murder means the killer committed the crime with malice aforethought, and felony murder means that regardless of malice, the killer committed the slaying during the commission of another felony, in this case aggravated assault.

Story from Day 1 In the first day of jury selection for the murder trial of the man accused of bush-axing to death his pregnant wife and two children, prosecutors asked potential jurors whether they believe a conviction can result from a case employing no forensic evidence to link the defendant to the crime.

Prosecuting Michael Curry is District Attorney Julia Slater, who asked individuals summoned for the jury pool whether they watch TV crime shows such as “CSI” and “Forensic Files.” Her follow-up inquiries were whether prospective jurors believe the crime-solving methods portrayed and whether they think crime-lab technology can yield a “magic piece of evidence” that seals a suspect’s guilt beyond doubt.

Curry is accused of using a bush ax Aug. 29, 1985, to hack to death his eight-months’ pregnant wife, Ann, 4-year-old daughter Erika and 20-month-old son Ryan in the family’s 5433 Rockhurst Drive home.

The jury questioning started shortly after 10 a.m. in a ninth-floor courtroom of the Columbus Government Center. Chief Superior Court Judge John Allen, who is presiding, said 88 candidates filled out questionnaires, and he wants to qualify a pool of 48 jurors before the defense and prosecution start striking people off to get the final 12, plus alternates.

The judge said he expects the trial to take two or three weeks, and he reiterated that he will tolerate no delays.

“I’m going to move this case,” he said twice, adding, “We’re going to finish this in my lifetime.”

Still he expects jury selection to be “an extended and tedious process.” The court has a list of 63 witnesses whose names must be read to individual jury candidates to determine whether they have some connection to those who will testify. By the time Monday’s proceedings ended at 5:20 p.m., 13 of 20 individuals questioned had been qualified to serve.

Seven were dismissed for various reasons; one because of poor health.

One woman said her religious beliefs prohibited her sitting in judgment of another person. Another woman said she remembered when the homicides happened. “I had expressed an opinion that the husband did it,” she said, so she was struck.

Despite objections from the defense, a man was dismissed because he’d decided Curry was innocent. “I don’t really think he’s guilty of killing his whole family like that,” he said of Curry. Were Curry guilty, the police would not have taken more than 20 years to arrest him, the gentleman said.

When Allen dismissed the man, Curry’s lead attorney, public defender Bob Wadkins, objected, saying the guy had the proper perspective, as Curry is presumed innocent until proved guilty. Allen disagreed, saying the potential juror had said he could not convict Curry regardless of the evidence.

The first juror questioned took the opposite stance, saying Curry must have committed some offense or he wouldn’t be on trial.

“What other reason would he be here for?” the TSYS worker said of Curry. “I guess he committed a crime.” He was dismissed.

Though Allen was concerned about pre-trial publicity tainting the jury pool, few cited news reports as having influenced their view of the case. “I haven’t come to any conclusions,” said a woman who first read about the case two weeks ago. Another woman said she hadn’t heard about the case at all until Allen read the indictment aloud that morning.

Jury selection resumes at 9 a.m. today, and Allen said the proceedings will stretch into the evening, if necessary, to qualify an adequate number for the jury pool.

Arrested by cold-case investigators on May 20, 2009, in Dalton, Ga., where he had settled after moving from Columbus after the slayings, Curry faces six counts of murder -- one count of felony murder and one count of malice murder for each of the three victims.

Malice murder means the killer committed the crime with malice aforethought, and felony murder means that regardless of malice, the killer committed the slaying during the commission of another felony, in this case aggravated assault.

Only about a dozen people sat in the audience Monday, including Ann Curry’s parents, Jim and Bernice Johnson, accompanied by about 10 supporters wearing pink ribbons in tribute to crime victims, and Michael Curry’s mother, Joyce Curry, who was with two companions.

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