Eight people were selected Tuesday for the jury in the murder trial of Jeffery D. Trevino, and 16 were dismissed, including one woman who helped search for a missing teen and one man whose friend was stabbed about two dozen times and killed.
Twenty-four prospective jurors were meticulously questioned by Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro, prosecutors and Trevino's attorney, John Conard. Conard focused much of his attention on how much media coverage surrounding the case that jurors had consumed and whether that caused them to reach an opinion on Trevino's guilt or innocence.
Conard has expressed concern that the high media exposure could taint the jury pool. But as veteran attorneys say, and Tuesday's jury selection bore out, people who have some knowledge of an alleged crime can still be fit to serve. Many of the jurors selected admitted that they read or saw news stories about the disappearance and death of Trevino's wife, Kira Steger, but said they could be impartial in court.
Trevino, 39, faces two counts of second-degree murder in the death of the 30-year-old Steger, who went missing Feb. 22 and was found in the Mississippi River on May 8.
A person's objectivity, critical thinking skills and belief in the presumption of innocence are key, attorneys said.
"The question will be, 'Even if you know something about this case, can you set that aside and make your decision based on evidence presented in this case?' " said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Hamline University's School of Law. "And almost everyone will say yes."
Defense attorney Murad Mohammad represents clients all over Minnesota, but half of his practice is in Ramsey County. Recently, Mohammad represented Steven E. Lewis, convicted of luring a man with a fake Craigslist ad and then fatally shooting him in the head, and Joseph H. Campbell, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the gang retaliation murder of Naressa Turner.
Mohammad said he doesn't automatically rule out jurors who have knowledge of an event.
"What I would want to know … is whether this person has invested a significant time in the case, have they formed an opinion," he said, adding that commenting on a news story online raises red flags.
And, attorneys say, it's just not that hard to find people who aren't plugged into news and who have no knowledge of a high-profile case.
"It's kind of embarrassing, but I don't know anything about it," a recent University of St. Thomas graduate said Tuesday.
The young woman who works as a nanny was selected as a juror. She was one of three potential jurors, including an electrician and a retired math teacher, who said they had no knowledge of the case.
A fourth, a Target employee in human resources, said she recognized Trevino's name but could not recall the case. Conard used one of his nine "strikes" to automatically rule her out. The math teacher was not selected.
One man was eliminated when he told the court, "One thing I read was about a rug cleaner, and it struck me as unusual. It fit the situation too well."
Authorities allege that there were signs of a cover-up inside the St. Paul house rented by Trevino and Steger rented and that her DNA was found in a carpet cleaner.
Although some jurors were dismissed for preconceived notions based on media coverage, health issues, scheduling conflicts and life experiences seemed to factor equally in the elimination of many jurors.
Conard moved to strike one juror who had been sexually assaulted by a boyfriend nine years ago. One man was eliminated after he told the court that his friend was killed, stabbed about 24 times in 1990 when she was 16 and he was 19. Two other girls were also attacked but survived.
"I would guess [jury duty] would bring up a lot of memories," the man said.
One woman was quickly dismissed when she told the court that she had helped search for her cousin's cousin, Katie Poirier, a 19-year-old who went missing in 1999 and is presumed dead, although her body was never found.
Three women and five men were selected for the jury, including a St. Paul pastor, a 3M engineer, a musician and a former Marine Corps helicopter mechanic.
Thirty jurors will return Wednesday for questioning. A jury of 14, including two alternates, will be seated.