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Fairbanks murder trial complicated by arrest of star witness

Daniel Vernier

CROOKSTON -- A longtime nurse and a college student were added to the jury Thursday in the murder trial of Thomas Fairbanks.

That brings to four the number of jurors picked in three days of individual interviews of 20 Polk County residents, making it look more doubtful opening arguments in the trial will begin Wednesday as Minnesota District Judge Jeff Remick had planned.

By this afternoon, Remick was telling potential jurors the seating of a jury of 12 plus alternates may not be complete until late next week.

He has said he expects the trial to last most, if not all, of the month with provisional schedule for the jury to begin deliberations Aug. 29.

Fairbanks, 34, is charged with first-degree murder of a peace officer, which carries a mandatory penalty of life in prison without parole, as well as a raft of assault and other charges. Prosecutors allege he shot Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey Feb. 18, 2009, and later fired the same gun at 10 other law enforcement officers and others in an ensuing standoff.

After a year and a half of treatment and therapy for his injuries, Dewey returned home into hospice care last July and died Aug. 9.

Fairbanks, who initially had been charged with attempted murder in the case, then was charged with murder.

Remick said the slow interview process is necessary, including state law mandating individual questioning of each potential juror by the judge and attorneys from both sides.

"You can see how much time is put in to a matter of this magnitude" he told one potential juror.

Based on statements made in court, the list of potential witnesses from both the prosecution and the defense totals dozens. They include many law enforcement officials and medical and scientific experts, as well as Dewey's widow.

Stepped-up security in the Polk County Justice Center in Crookston for the trial includes deputies from surrounding counties serving as bailiffs in the court room or patrolling the building.

In a strange twist, Fairbanks' admitted accomplice in the 2009 shooting was arrested early Tuesday in St. Cloud, Minn., on a domestic assault charge, only hours after appearing Monday in a pre-trial proceeding in Fairbanks' case in Crookston.

Daniel Vernier, 29, remains in the Stearns County jail in St. Cloud on a felony charge of domestic assault under $300,000 bond. He was arrested about 2 a.m. Tuesday in St. Cloud, according to jail records.

Vernier is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution in Fairbanks' trial.

He faced multiple charges in the shooting and standoff in Mahnomen and in an agreement with prosecutors in 2009, pleaded guilty to failing to assist Dewey after he was shot.

Shortly after the shooting, Vernier told law enforcement his version of what happened, fingering Fairbanks and turning over the 9 mm handgun allegedly used by Fairbanks to shoot Dewey.

He was given a two-year sentence and agreed to testify against Fairbanks.

According to court records, Vernier apparently was released from prison earlier this year, to serve out remaining time on home release and probation.

Vernier appeared in court in Crookston on Monday as attorneys from both sides discussed how his testimony would be handled.

Because federal authorities may use anything Vernier says in court against him and possibly charge him in federal court, Remick advised Vernier to take the counsel of public defenders assigned to him by the state and by the U.S. attorney's office before he testifies.

(Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald)