Thursday, February 19, 2009

Selection of Cuadra Jury Goes Slowly

Harlow Cuadra

The Times Leader reports this morning that a man listed as juror 16 didn’t stay long inside a Luzerne County courtroom on Wednesday. He walked to the witness stand, raised his right hand and promised to tell the truth.

His answer to the first question from Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. was enough to have him excused from serving on the jury panel in the capital murder case of Harlow Cuadra.

“I’m prejudiced against (Cuadra) lifestyle, gay pornography; I can’t deal with that,” the man said.

Prosecutors alleged Cuadra, 27, and his partner, Joseph Kerekes, 35, both from Virginia Beach, Va., killed rival gay pornography movie producer Bryan Kocis at Kocis’ Dallas Township home in January 2007.

Kerekes pleaded guilty in December to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Cuadra.

So far, 35 members of the pool of 125 have been questioned in two days. Five have been accepted to serve on the jury.

On Wednesday, 24 were questioned, with 12 excused by the judge for legal cause, five dismissed by prosecutors and five excused by Cuadra’s lawyers.

Juror No. 16 was excused by Olszewski. The excused juror was the only juror questioned in two days to express his bias against gay pornography. Most jurors who have been excused said they couldn’t impose the death penalty.

Assistant district attorneys Michael Melnick, Shannon Crake and Allyson Kacmarski, and Cuadra’s lawyers, Joseph D’Andrea and Paul Walker, are hoping to select a jury of 12 plus four alternates by Friday afternoon.

The slow pace of selecting the jury caused Olszewski to advise attorneys that the trial may start Tuesday, altering his plan to have opening arguments begin on Monday.

Two women and three men have been chosen for the jury. Both women said they suffer from diabetes, including one who takes medication for depression. One is a homemaker and the other woman is a hostess at a restaurant.

Two of the men are retired and the third man is a laborer at InterMetro Industries in Wilkes-Barre.

Jury selection is scheduled to resume this morning.

Meanwhile, the Citizens' Voice reports that four more jurors were selected Wednesday in the capital homicide trial of Harlow Cuadra of Virginia Beach, Va., who is accused of killing Bryan Kocis and setting fire to his Back Mountain home in January 2007. Nearly one-third of the jurors needed have been picked in the high profile trial.

A total of five jurors — three men and two women — have been selected out of 35 potential jurors individually interviewed by prosecution and defense attorneys since Tuesday. Twelve jurors and four alternates will be chosen before the start of the trial, which county Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. said he hopes will begin Monday.

Selection has been slow as attorneys have scrutinized potential jurors, particularly questioning them about their beliefs on the death penalty and any prejudices against homosexuals.

Cuadra, 27, and Kocis, 44, worked in the gay pornography business. Prosecutors allege Cuadra slashed Kocis’ neck and stabbed his torso nearly 30 times at his Midland Drive home in Dallas Township in order to lure an actor who worked for Kocis to the fledgling pornography business Cuadra co-owned with Joseph Kerekes, also of Virginia Beach.

Prosecutors were pursuing the death penalty against Kerekes, 35, as well, before he pleaded guilty to second-degree homicide in December. Kerekes is serving a life sentence and has said he will not testify against Cuadra.

Prosecutors have dismissed eight potential jurors and defense attorneys have dismissed seven. Each side can move to dismiss 30 potential jurors for any reason, leaving the prosecution with 22 strikes and the defense with 23, as jury selection resumes today at 8:30 a.m.

[PC Notes: I'll be heading out to the airport shortly, and will be on a plane or at an airport until 7-7:30 p.m. eastern time (Anchorage is 4 hours behind). I'll try to do some updates while I'm at the airport[s] waiting for my connection[s], and will certainly have a full report later today.