Attorneys on Tuesday started the laborious task of winnowing through hundreds of prospective jurors for the 12 who are to weigh the case of a mother accused in the slayings of three young children.
As Ventura County Judge Donald D. Coleman read prospects a summary of the case, Socorro "Cora" Caro sat quietly at the defense table, at times dabbing away tears with a tissue. A pale, slender woman with deep circles under her eyes, she is charged with first-degree murder in the 1999 shooting deaths of three of her four sons.
Caro, 44, has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. Her trial is expected to take four months--a length that will make selecting a jury more difficult than in most cases. By Tuesday afternoon, Coleman had excused more than 120 county residents who had been selected for jury duty this week.
The three dozen who were not excused were led from the court to a conference room where they filled out lengthy questionnaires asking, among other things, their views on capital punishment. If found guilty, Caro faces either the death penalty or a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
After studying the questionnaires submitted during several days of preliminary jury selection this week, attorneys are to begin detailed questioning of the narrowed-down jury pool on July 31.
In groups of 85, prospective jurors filed into Coleman's courtroom throughout Tuesday. Describing the elaborate jury-selection process, the judge hinted at the case's complexity, even reading aloud a brief history of capital punishment in California.
He also read in a dispassionate tone the basic facts of the Caro family's domestic tragedy: Cora and Xavier Caro, a rheumatologist with a practice in Northridge, had been married 13 years. Dr. Caro's practice allegedly was having financial problems. In August 1999, he fired his wife as office manager. He also had an affair with an employee, the judge said, and sought advice from a divorce lawyer.
As the judge read of Xavier Caro's grim discovery at the family's Santa Rosa Valley home one November night--three of his boys dead and his wife bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head--Cora Caro wept.
During breaks in the proceeding, Caro, clutching a Bible, was led to a holding area. Earlier, before prospective jurors were allowed into the courtroom, prosecutors had objected to the book's conspicuous presence on the defense table. Coleman agreed, and a bailiff tucked it inside a manila folder.
"My brother's a priest," Coleman told Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Temple. "I'll make sure he doesn't hold it against you."
In questions to the judge, prospective jurors shied away from the facts of the case. One woman asked whether parking spaces are reserved for jurors. (They aren't.) When a man asked the meaning of "legal insanity," Coleman said the concept would be explained during trial.
Many of those who were excused filled out forms indicating their employers wouldn't pay them while they were serving on a jury for four months. Others offered reasons ranging from an impending retirement party to an expected birth.
"My wife is due in mid-November," a man told the judge. "But what if it comes early?"
"Take it from me," Coleman said. "First ones rarely come early."
The request was denied.