Deputy shooting murder trial: Defense claims jury pool 'tainted'
CROOKSTON -- Thomas Fairbanks' defense team tried to get a panel of potential jurors dismissed Monday as "tainted" because of conversation among them with the wife of a law enforcement officer listed as an alleged victim of Fairbanks, who is charged with murder in the 2009 shooting of a deputy -- and the shooting at of several other officers -- in Mahnomen.
While Ed Hellekson, a Minnesota public defender assigned to represent Fairbanks, was interviewing a Fosston, Minn., woman, state District Judge Jeff Remick interrupted and said a "special circumstance" required bringing in a different potential juror.
The judge had just noticed the name of a potential juror brought in for the afternoon, part of a new panel that waited in a back room for each to be interviewed individually in court.
The name was that of the wife of a local law enforcement officer -- one of many who responded Feb. 18, 2009 to the shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey -- who was in the ante-chamber, one of a half-dozen prospective jurors waiting to be interviewed by the judge and attorneys from both sides in the selection process.
The woman's husband is one of 10 law enforcement officers from several agencies named in court documents as alleged victims of Fairbanks, who, according to prosecutors, shot toward them during a several-hour standoff following the shooting of Dewey.
The officer's wife said while waiting she had chatted with another potential juror who she knew from their community and church, but that she did not discuss the case with anyone.
Remick dismissed the officer's wife for the obvious conflict of interest she would bring to the trial.
Hellekson, however, thought damage had been done to other possible jurors.
His concern, he told Remick, "is this panel may be tainted" by sympathy with the officer's wife and he asked Remick to send the handful home.
Remick denied the request, upholding the prosecution's objection. Remick said that sworn testimony showed no discussions of the case had occurred, and the defense still could interview each of the panel members to determine their fitness as jurors.
The panel happened also to include a retired state Highway Patrol trooper who was dismissed when he said he knew too many of the law enforcement officers involved in the incident.
One juror was selected Monday of the 12 people interviewed.
That makes six picked so far -- three men, three women -- of 39 Polk County residents interviewed toward a jury of 12 plus alternates.
A member of the White Earth Band of Chippewa, Fairbanks is 34. Hellekson tells potential jurors he is concerned Fairbanks won't get a fair trial because he's an American Indian. The venue was changed from Mahnomen to Crookston to give him a fairer trial, but it remains a Mahnomen County case, with prosecutors from the state attorney general's office and public defenders also appointed by the state.
The charge of first-degree murder of a peace officer carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Fairbanks also faces several counts of assault against 10 law enforcement officers, charges that each carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, as well as other lesser charges.
When the trial opened Aug. 1, Remick was planning for jury selection to be complete by this Wednesday and the trial to be completed by late August. He told jurors to expect the trial to last into September, including jury deliberations.
He also told potential jurors and attorneys from both sides to show up at 8:30 a.m. today for interviews, 30 minutes earlier than the previous schedule, in an attempt to get a jury selected with more dispatch.
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