Double murder jury selection restarts in Story County
Jury selection for the trial of Tanner King, the Fort Dodge man facing two first-degree murder charges and one attempted murder charge, started once again in Story County Tuesday after exhaustion of a large jury pool and reports of jury tampering interrupted September’s first local attempt.
With about 75 potential jurors, a slightly smaller group than the 100 tapped in September, the court has already experienced a much faster selection process, comparatively. By the end of Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Susan Krisco completed her voir dire questioning of the pool for the state, and defense attorney Paul Rounds finished a substantial part of his.
In September, Krisco barely scratched the surface of her voir dire questioning. The rest of almost two entire days was spent thoroughly vetting each juror privately in the judge’s chambers, taking particular care to ensure that none of the jurors knew any of the names on an extensive list of names involved.
The court seeks a pool of 16 jurors to finish the trial, four of whom will be designated as alternates.
That list of names alone, 147 in total, took Krisco a few minutes to read off. Fewer than five jurors were acquainted with any names on the list. The number is not the number of witnesses that will be called to the stand, but rather the people contacted by, involved in, or mentioned in facilitating the large investigation.
“We have many, many witnesses,” District Court Judge Kurt Stoebe prefaced Tuesday morning, telling jurors that preliminary questioning would be critical to finding an appropriate cross-section of life experiences to weigh the different pieces of evidence and testimony offered.
Stoebe predicted that the trial would run until next Friday or Monday, Nov. 25, wrapping up before Thanksgiving.
“It’s very difficult to predict how long this will take,” he said.
Voir dire questioning of the jurors, several of whom have previously served on a jury, centered primarily around questions of motives, proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, weighing the credibility of various types of witnesses and the definition of “premeditation.”
The state revealed that some witnesses will testify on the stand in their jail garb, asking if it might affect their credibility. The defense wondered whether jurors would give more credence to testimony from police officers.
Both Krisco and Rounds spent a considerable amount of time using pop culture and news references as analogies to help illustrate their questions.
Rounds asked which jurors were familiar with Netflix’s Making a Murderer, a documentary series in which a Wisconsin man, exonerated of a wrongful murder conviction after serving years in prison, was subsequently convicted of another murder after suing the local police department that investigated his first conviction.
“Do you think officers set out to convict innocent people, or are they convinced that (suspects) are guilty and just do what it takes?” Rounds posed, asking if a lack of deliberately attempting to convict an innocent person, or a desire to specifically not do so, absolved them of responsibility in a wrongful conviction.
Krisco referred to video footage from the ’90s, in which Rodney King was seen being beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers, to ask jurors to articulate their understanding of reasonable doubt, the standard burden of proof prosecutors must clear with juries.
“Even on video tape, how could we ever prove anything beyond all doubt,” when disagreement abounds from people who watched the exact same video, she asked.
Motive and premeditation dominated a substantial chunk of the state’s questioning, as Krisco attempted to parse how comfortable jurors would be with deliberating without a clear motive for the crimes allegedly committed.
As Rounds followed up on the topic of motive during his examination, the state made an objection.
“Is the why (motive) relevant to you?” Rounds asked, before the jury was asked to clear the room for the objection.
Krisco, whose motion was partially sustained, said that the defense was attempting to make motive a relevant factor in the case, which she said was not.
“Perhaps it can be clarified that motive is not an element,” Stoebe suggested to Rounds.
Motive is not an element of the prosecution’s argument and the state does not have a burden to prove the motive for the charges facing King, Rounds clarified with jurors.
The defense also got in one sustained objection during the state’s line of questioning regarding the definition of “premeditation,” a key component of the state’s burden of proof to secure convictions for first-degree murder.
Krisco asked jurors to define what they thought “premeditated,” meant, with many answering that they believed it meant taking advanced steps of planning, often with a time element shaping their understanding.
“Do you have to think about it overnight to premeditate it?” Krisco asked one juror.
“No, it could be five minutes,” the juror replied.
Krisco then went on to try to ask whether impulsively pulling over for McDonald’s would constitute premeditation, with a decision to pull over formed mere moments before the act — a line of examination the defense objected to.
Rounds asserted that the line of questioning was attempting to lower the burden to prove premeditation, saying that the state was leveling anything one could think about as a type of premeditation.
“We have a right to know if someone thinks premeditation means something happens for a long time,” Krisco replied.
“I don’t think there’s a problem asking if they have a preconceived notion of what premeditation is,” Stoebe said, sustaining the objection, “but you were pushing some information to them that could be misconstrued. I just think that’s too far.”
The trial for King may finally proceed over a year after the 2018 shooting he was arrested for.
King was arrested in October 2018 after two brothers were found shot to death north of downtown Fort Dodge. He’s accused of killing Marion Rhodes, 37, and El Dominic Rhodes, 34, of Fort Dodge. Their bodies were found in an alley near North Ninth Street and Third Avenue North, and behind King’s former apartment building at 910 Second Ave. N.
King is also accused of taking a failed shot at Cletio Clark, then 28, of Fort Dodge, for which he faces attempted murder.
Criminal complaints detail an interaction in which Clark allegedly confronted King about “bad drugs” the defendant allegedly sold to his girlfriend. The report goes on to say that during the argument, Marion Rhodes walked away and exchanged words with Clark, before El Dominic Rhodes pulled up in a vehicle and got out.
The car Clark was driving at the time was allegedly hit with bullets as Clark fled the scene.
Though jury exhaustion was foreshadowed as a possibility before the first attempted jury selection, the court was shocked to hear jurors in September report they were being intimidated by individuals outside the court during the first two days.
“The communications that were made to the two jurors that were revealed to us were shocking,” Stoebe said before ruling on the venue change to Story County. “It tainted those jurors.”