Weather Forecast


Jury selection in Fairbanks trial continues

Thomas Fairbanks

CROOKSTON -- The first five potential jurors interviewed in court today in the murder trial of Thomas Lee Fairbanks were rejected by the prosecution or the defense, one after nearly two hours of questions from the judge and attorneys from both sides.

Jury selection will resume Wednesday morning in the trial expected to take all month.

Fairbanks, 34, of Mahnomen, Minn., is charged with first-degree murder of a peace officer, which in Minnesota, carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole.

He was arrested after the Feb. 18, 2009, shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey. The incident led to a standoff in Mahnomen in which Fairbanks is accused of shooting at other people.

He faces six counts of first-degree assault using deadly force against peace officers, allegedly shooting the same gun at 10 other law enforcement officers from four agencies. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a minimum sentence of 10 years.

Fairbanks also faces lesser assault charges against three other people, including his admitted accomplice, Daniel Vernier, who is scheduled to testify against him. Prosecutors say Fairbanks fired the same 9 mm Luger semi-automatic handgun at Vernier and several others that he shot at Dewey, hitting him in the abdomen and head.

Dewey died from his injuries on Aug. 9, 2010.

Fairbanks also faces charges of failing to assist Dewey after he was shot, of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of attempting to steal Dewey's squad vehicle.

In Minnesota District Court today, Fairbanks twice smiled at his mother as he left the court room on breaks, one time saying quietly, "I love you."

A Polk County deputy working as a bailiff admonished him: "No talking."

One woman was removed from the jury pool by defense attorneys Ed Hellekson and Jim Austad because she wasn't sure she could give Fairbanks a fair trial.

Partly it was because news coverage of the shooting and standoff more than two years ago, she said.

"I have to remember that he's innocent until proven guilty," she told state District Judge Jeffrey Remick. "But I did see him being brought out of the house at the time on TV."

Asked by Remick again if she could put aside any opinions she has on the case and still hear it fairly, the woman, after a long silence, said, her voice breaking: "The only thing is, I feel a lot of sympathy for Mrs. Dewey losing her husband, because I lost mine." Dewey, who was 27 when he died a year ago from complications of his shooting injuries, was married for six years to Emily, who cared for him during the 18 months after the shooting.

At the end of the afternoon, John Gross, one of the prosecutors from the state attorney general's office, told Judge Remick they just had learned that a relative of Fairbanks had approached defense attorneys Tuesday to provide documents about Fairbanks' reported medical issues, including use of prescription drugs. Gross said the prosecution objected to the material being introduced as evidence so late and that it was irrelevant to the shooting of Dewey.

Defense attorneys have said in court they plan to argue that Fairbanks' ingestion of alcohol and drugs before and after the shooting should be taken into account by the jury.

Such an "intoxication defense," can mitigate intent in a murder charge, leading to a lesser sentence, according to legal experts.

It's clear, too, that the defense plans to introduce evidence about how easily handguns such as a Luger can be fired many times, with slight pulls on the trigger, based on pre-trial discussions in court.

Ed Hellekson, the lead public defender, asked potential jurors about their experience with and views of guns.

Hellekson also represents the local touch of the attorneys in this case, who all are state-based lawyers brought in to what is still a Mahnomen County case, with its venue shifted to Crookston.

Hellekson grew up in East Grand Forks where he saw prejudice against Hispanics, he told potential jurors in probing them on their views about race, crime and the justice system.

Hellekson, as well as both prosecutors -- Gross and Eric Schieferdecker, who grew up in Minot -- are graduates of UND's law school. Gross worked in the Polk County attorney's office in Crookston for a few years shortly after the turn of the century before taking a job, like Schieferdecker, in the state attorney general's office.

Jim Austad, a state public defender working with Hellekson, grew up in Bemidji and went to law school at Hamline University in St. Paul.