Day one: Domestic violence a focus during Abshire jury selection
A young woman allegedly raped in June won't be part of the jury deciding the fate of accused wife-killer Eric Abshire. She was one of several women dismissed as potential jurors on the first day of the highly anticipated trial in Orange County Circuit Court due to their experiences with domestic violence.
"I am very biased [against] men," said the young blond woman dressed in medical scrubs, recounting the alleged rape to explain why she couldn't be fair to Abshire. His first-degree murder trial promises to focus on his actions not only as an alleged killer but as an alleged domestic abuser.
Other citizens in this small farming community dismissed Wednesday, October 12, included a man soon scheduled to receive a heart pacemaker and a woman with Type I diabetes. However, a second-grade school teacher's mention of an impending field trip didn't win her an immediate dismissal, nor did one prospective juror's mention of foreclosure proceedings on her house.
Dozens of would-be jurors endured a nearly seven-hour wait to be summoned inside the compact third-floor courtroom, although more than 50 of the 94 called for duty never made it to the interrogation.
"I can't remember a panel that large," says Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, who stopped in to observe the proceedings during a break from another matter in the Orange County Courthouse.
"In a notorious case like this," Heilberg says, "you have to check to see whether people can be unbiased and fair."
Of the 94 who responded to the summons on a grim, rainy morning that seemed a suitable match for the bleak nature of the case, 19 were eventually dismissed, and the questions posed by prosecution and defense may give some indication of what's to come.
"Does anyone have feelings about someone who chooses not to testify on their own behalf," asked Abshire's attorney, Charles Weber, suggesting the possibility that the accused wife-killer won't take the stand in his own defense. Stressing the presumption of innocence that is a bedrock of the U.S. legal system, Judge Daniel Bouton repeatedly reminded the prospective jurors that no defendant is obligated to present any evidence, and that it is the prosecution's responsibility to prove guilt.
Weber seemed eager to find jurors willing to take an unpopular stand in this small county seat where talk about the alleged sexual exploits and alleged acts of personal violence by the accused have become the fodder for constant comment.
"Can you withstand personal scrutiny if the verdict is different from public sentiment?" asked Weber, mentioning both the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson and the more recent proceedings against Casey Anthony as examples of unpopular verdicts.
For its part, the prosecution indicated that this is one courthouse drama that won't feature any confession or smoking gun.
"There are no eyewitnesses," said assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Moore, calling his evidence a "circumstantial case" and asking the panel if anyone would have difficulty arriving at a verdict based solely on circumstantial evidence.
As extensively reported in the Hook, the now 36-year-old Abshire, a dump truck driver, was arrested last December and charged with the first-degree murder of his wife, the former Justine Elizabeth Swartz. She was a 1997 Western Albemarle High School grad who attended Hollins and James Madison Universities and taught kindergarten at Culpeper's Emerald Hill Elementary School.
While the November 3, 2006, death of the 27-year-old woman originally appeared to have resulted from a hit-and-run, her parents and police soon voiced suspicions about her widower's version of events.
Abshire, who appeared in court for a preliminary hearing last week wearing shackles and jail-issue jumpsuit, sported a fresh haircut for jury selection with a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and black necktie with subtle stripes.
This husband was once so popular, according to the prosecution, that he cavorted with no fewer than eight girlfriends over the course of his courtship and marriage to Justine Abshire. But on Wednesday, Abshire's star seemed to have dimmed, as a scattering of media were the only presence on the defendant's side of the courtroom.
On the victim's side, the woman's parents, younger sister, grandmother, and two aunts sat stoically throughout the proceedings and declined comment.
After narrowing the panel to 24 qualified jurors, prosecution and defense each struck five, leaving 14: 10 women and four men, including two alternates, who will be dismissed before deliberations begin, although jurors are not told their status.
Opening arguments begin Thursday, October 13, at 9:30am.
Correction: The jury's gender make-up was reversed in the original version of this post.-edRead more on: Abshire trial