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Jury selection begins in trial

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

An Arizona prison escapee accused of murdering a vacationing retired couple in 2010 in a crime that shocked the state and sparked a nationwide manhunt appeared in an Albuquerque courtroom Monday at the start of his federal capital trial.

John Charles McCluskey is charged with kidnapping Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla., and murdering them north of Santa Rosa on Aug. 2, 2010. The Haases were en route to a Colorado vacation and had stopped in their pickup and camper at a rest area outside Santa Rosa when they were carjacked, according to prosecutors.

Attorneys estimate the trial will take months from start to finish, concluding just before Thanksgiving.

Testifying will be McCluskey’s girlfriend and cousin, Casslyn Mae Welch, and fellow escapee Tracy Allen Province. Both Province and Welch, who helped the two men in their escape, have entered guilty pleas.

McCluskey has appeared at previous hearings in the case shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, but at trial Monday, he wore a dark suit and tie.

By late afternoon Monday, there were five potential jurors, and a long way to go.

It will take a pool of 64 qualified, potential jurors from which to pick a jury of 12. Six alternates are also to be selected before testimony begins in about a month.

Prospective jurors are called in groups of 12 each day for questioning, first as a group by U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera and attorneys on topics like pre-trial publicity, then individually in the courtroom to decide if the juror can be fair to both sides.

Each side has about 10 minutes to ask general questions or to further probe the questionnaire of almost 100 questions the federal court jury division sent to 1,800 possible jurors statewide six months ago. That list was winnowed to some 300 after factors like vacations, age, disability and the like eliminated those unable to spend months hearing the case.

The federal capital trial procedure requires a jury to make a finding of guilt in the first trial phase.

If that occurs, the penalty phase begins. The prosecution presents aggravating factors that it believes weigh in favor of a death sentence – prior convictions, for instance – and the jury must find that those factors also have been proved.

Then the defense presents “mitigating” factors that weigh in favor of life in prison with no possibility of release. Those may include mercy.

A decision to impose the death penalty must be unanimous.

According to prosecutors, the Haases and their three dogs were carjacked and taken to a remote ranch area near Colonias, and the couple was shot. Their trailer was burned and McCluskey and two companions allegedly stole the pickup and a gun, left the dogs behind and traveled to Albuquerque, where they ditched the truck.

Law enforcement officials found the pickup on North Fourth Street and found fingerpints on the plastic covering from a roll of paper towels.

McCluskey and Welch traveled east to Arkansas and back west to Arizona before they were arrested in a U.S. Forest Service campground in eastern Arizona on Aug. 19, 2010, according to court documents.

Prosecutors Michael Warbel of the U.S. Department of Justice and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Greg Fouratt and Linda Mott, and defense attorneys Michael Burt of San Francisco, Theresa Duncan of Albuquerque and Gary Mitchell of Ruidoso took turns asking questions as jury panelists, identified only by a number so as to preserve their anonymity, were called out one by one.

Among those who could be selected for the final 12 are a woman from a deeply Christian home in Texas who said she grew up seeing the world in only black and white and being a staunch believer in the death penalty. But when a youth whom she and her husband had befriended and considered a son robbed a store and killed two people, she persuaded him to take a plea offer that guaranteed life in prison rather than face the death penalty.

Another retained juror said he knew Fouratt casually through service in the National Guard, and assured questioners he could meaningfully weigh factors for and against the death penalty, which he generally favors strongly.

The process begins anew today, and is expected to continue for another three weeks or so before the case is ready for opening statements and testimony.

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