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Longer court days sought in Fairbanks trial

CROOKSTON, Minn. - After only five jurors were seated in four days of interviews, the prosecution Friday asked the judge if they could start working longer hours next week in the preliminaries for the murder trial of Thomas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks faces a first-degree murder charge in the shooting of Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey in 2009 in Mahnomen. He also faces several assault charges alleging he shot the same handgun at other law enforcement officers during an ensuing standoff and other related charges.

Minnesota law requires juries in first-degree murder cases - those involving a peace officer carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole - to be individually interviewed in court before being seated. So far, 27 Polk County residents have been interviewed.

At the end of the afternoon Friday, John Gross, one of two prosecutors from the state attorney general's office, asked state District Judge Jeff Remick if jury selection next week could begin at 8:30 a.m. instead of 9 a.m.

Because the prosecution plans to call several expert witnesses, including physicians from Fargo, St. Cloud, Minn., and the Twin Cities, Gross said it was important to get a jury seated next week, if possible, so travel schedules for witnesses could be set.

Remick said he was willing to begin earlier and end later than the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule of the first week.

But Ed Hellekson, one of two state-appointed public defenders for Fairbanks, said Gross's proposal concerned him because it would cut into needed, daily out-of-court "prep time" in what promises to be a long, complicated case.

Remick said he figures that, based on slow progress in jury selection, it will be Aug. 15 - not Wednesday - before opening arguments from both sides will launch what is expected to be about three weeks of actual trial.

That means jury deliberations likely could extend into next month, Remick acknowledged.

Jury selection resumes Monday morning in the Polk County Justice Center, where Fairbanks is jailed.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald