Jury selection in the murder trial of former California Highway Patrol officer Craig Peyer entered the final stage Wednesday when attorneys for both sides begin a fast-paced questioning of prospective jurors that included the dismissals of 17 of the 29 questioned.
Twelve of the dismissals resulted from preemptory challenges entered by defense attorney Robert Grimes and Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Van Orshoven. Each side used six preemptory challenges, leaving the prosecution and defense with 14 challenges each that can be used after questioning the 52 prospective jurors left to be interviewed.
Five other possible jurors were excused by Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman for a variety of reasons, mostly hardship. But included in this group was Gail Hale, a law-and-order advocate who is married to an arson investigator.
"I think I could be a little biased (against Peyer)," Hale said. "I don't think I should be here, really."
Quick Pace Surprised Judge
Wednesday's session produced a few surprises and light moments. The speed of the attorneys in questioning the possible jurors also surprised Huffman, who said he had expected this part of the trial to drag out longer. This step in jury selection is a process that requires great introspection on the part of potential jurors as they are questioned about the case at hand and hypothetical situations posed by the attorneys.
Theoretically, there are no right or wrong answers to the questions, but a person's chances of sitting on the jury that is going to try Peyer hinges very much on how he or she answers the questions.
Roger Moshgat told defense attorney Grimes that he could be "emotionally detached" from the pain suffered by the family of the murder victim, Cara Knott, and could "render an objective judgment." He was excused by the prosecution.
On the other hand, Judy Smith told prosecutors that she was very emotional and would probably cry while hearing graphic testimony about the murder. A smiling Van Orshoven assured her that "weeping is not a sin" as long as "you're watching and listening to what's going on."
Smith was excused by the defense.
John J. McKechnie, a retired Navy officer who sat in judgment at several courts-martial, told Grimes that public officials like CHP officers "should be set up to higher standards." He was excused by the defense.
'What About the Rest?'
Carolyn Burch, a retiree, was also excused by the defense. She had offered Peyer a fair trial but told Grimes that she would "wonder when the rest is coming" if she was selected as a juror and Peyer chose not to call any defense witnesses or testify on his own behalf.
Huffman explained that in the legal system, the prosecution has the burden of proof. At that point Burch, who had earlier expressed disappointment at not being able to discuss the case with her lawyer nephew, indicated that she was not very enthusiastic about going through the process.
Also included in the prospective jurors excused by the defense were Judith A. Frazier, a part-time instructor at San Diego State University (Knott was a SDSU student) and Sandra Marshall, a nurse whose duties also include working with blood.
The testimony of blood experts is expected to be a crucial factor in the prosecution's case. Two serologists testified at the preliminary hearing that sophisticated blood tests done on a sweat shirt and boot worn by Knott when she was killed link Peyer to the murder.
Jurors excused by the prosecution include James Croswell, a business agent with the International Assn. of Machinists, and William A. Prince, who said he had served in another case that left him disillusioned with police witnesses. The case involved a drunk-driving charge, said Prince, who volunteered that the officers who testified against the defendant fabricated evidence and lied on the stand.
Some of the witnesses scheduled to appear for the prosecution include homicide detectives, who are expected to testify about a circumstantial evidence gathered from Peyer's CHP uniform and other personal items.
The attorneys are not obligated to explain their preemptory challenges, so it is difficult to learn the reasons behind their decisions.
Grimes spent much of his time quizzing the probable jurors about their opinions on the 18 young women expected to testify that Peyer stopped them at night on Interstate 15 for minor traffic violations and forced them to park in the darkened Mercy Road off-ramp, where Knott was killed. The women have testified that Peyer detained them for unusually long periods of time, spending most of the time chatting about mundane things.
Peyer's attorneys have argued that the stops are irrelevant and not connected to Knott's murder.
"But what if contrary to our evidence" the prosecution shows that Peyer "was the Gary Hart of the Highway Patrol," what would he do, Grimes asked potential juror Robert Harrell.
"One chain of events doesn't necessarily prove another set," Harrell said.
A few minutes later Huffman instructed the jury candidates that if they are selected as jurors, the testimony of the 18 women cannot be considered to prove Peyer's "disposition to commit crimes or is an evil person."
Instead, the women's testimony should be considered only to decide whether or not the stops showed a pattern of conduct on Peyer's stop which could have resulted in Peyer stopping Knott on the night she was killed, Huffman said.
Peyer, 37, is charged with killing Knott, 20, on Dec. 27, 1986, and is free on $1 million bail. According to police, Knott was strangled after Peyer, in uniform and in his patrol car, stopped her. She was killed after a struggle on a bridge near Interstate 15 and Mercy Road. Her body was thrown 65 feet down into a dry creek bed.
Wednesday's session ended on a note of humor, when possible juror Livia Martin asked to be excused because her employer would only guarantee her 22 days pay if she is selected as a juror. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
Huffman asked who her employer is. Martin said it is attorney Gary Hardke, from the firm of Hillyer and Irwin.
"I'll give Mr. Hardke a call tonight," Huffman said.