A victim of domestic violence.
A Vietnam war veteran with memory recall issues.
A man whose sister was murdered 15 years ago.
One by one, Juneau residents were excused — for various reasons — from serving on a jury that will be hearing a murder trial in Juneau Superior Court for the next three weeks. The process of seating 12 jurors and four alternates began Monday in the re-opened cold case against Robert D. Kowalski, who is accused of intentionally and fatally shooting his girlfriend at a Yakutat lodge nearly two decades ago.
The defendant, who turns 53 later this week, has appeared in Juneau court periodically since he was indicted by a Juneau grand jury in the fall of 2011 on first- and second-degree murder charges. He normally wears prison attire (a yellow or orange jumpsuit), but on Monday he was allowed to wear a collared shirt, which he tucked into a pair of unbelted khaki pants, although those were too long and skimmed the courtroom floor as he walked back and forth to the defendant’s table. His attorney, Eric Hedland, introduced him to the pool of prospective jurors as “Bob.”
Kowalski is standing trial for the July 1996 murder of Sandra M. Perry, a 39-year-old mother of three who lived outside Seattle and whose death was ruled accidental at the time. Alaska State Troopers said Kowalski claimed his shotgun accidentally discharged when he tripped inside a room at Yakutat’s Glacier Bear Lodge, where the couple was vacationing from Washington.
The case was re-opened 15 years later, however, when Kowalski’s girlfriend in Flathead County, Mont., met a similar end. Lorraine Kay Morin, a 45-year-old mother of six, was found dead inside her home from a gunshot wound to the head. Kowalski never admitted to killing Morin but conceded the state of Montana probably had enough evidence to convict him. He accepted an Alford plea for mitigated deliberate homicide and was sentenced in April 2009 to 50 years in prison with 10 years suspended. The Alaska Bureau of Investigations Cold Case Investigations Unit later transferred him to Juneau to answer to charges for Perry’s death.
On Monday, a crowd of 60-some people filled Judge Louis Menendez’ courtroom, listened to the judge read the indictment out loud and swore the jurors’ oath to tell the truth as the attorneys began “voir dire,” the legal process of questioning prospective jurors to root out bias and to see if there’s cause to not allow the juror to serve.
It was a slow-going process. Curious attorneys walked into the courtroom to see what was going on, yawned and quickly left. A court security officer played on Facebook on his smart phone. A teenager dozed off in a chair in the back of the courtroom.
The lead prosecutor, James Fayette of the Anchorage-based Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, waded through the personal lives and stories of about 15 potential jurors to reveal insurmountable conflicts. He pressed potential jurors on a variety of topics, including if they have ever lived in or traveled to Yakutat (about 24 had), if domestic violence has touched their lives (about 18), if “serious violence” has touched their lives (about two or three) and if anyone has been big game hunting in the past 10 years (about seven).
Hedland, meanwhile, opted for a more Socratic method of questioning. The assistant public defender asked the group to contemplate the “platitudes” of the criminal justice system more critically from why there is a presumption of innocence for his client to — perhaps notably in this case — the limitations of memory. He also expressed concern about how jurors will react if they see graphic visual images at trial.
“I’m worried that people are going to see terrible photos and hold that against Mr. Kowalski,” he said, prompting the jurors to answer how they would deal with that scenario.
Outside the presence of the jury, Hedland once more noted he’s concerned he’s going to have to “try two cases” in one, given the judge’s earlier ruling that allows the Montana case into evidence for limited purposes. Hedland previously unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the indictment based on the argument that prosecutors were using the Montana case as “substantive proof of murder” in the Perry case, which he said was unfairly prejudicial and inadmissible as “bad act” evidence.
“I have a tough job in front of me,” he told the Empire during a break.
Only three prospective jurors were excused by the end of the day. One woman said she was the victim of domestic violence, and that charges were just filed in the case. She said she did not think she could be fair. One man said he didn’t think he could be a good juror because he has a poor memory — he sustained a head injury in Vietnam where he served as an Army Ranger from 1964 to 1968. If asked to deliberate, he said he’d have trouble remembering what witnesses testified about two or three weeks earlier. Another man was excused after he said his sister was the victim of a violent crime and was murdered 15 or 16 years ago.
The remainder of the jury pool will reconvene at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning for the second day of jury selection. The process may take another day or two to complete.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.