Third Day of Jury Selection in Putnam County Murder Trial

Perhaps the most difficult situation to be faced with as a criminal defense attorney in West Virginia, or in any other rural state, is going to trial with a defendant who is charged with such an appalling crime that it is practically impossible to get a fair and impartial jury. This task is made much more difficult in your average small West Virginia county, where any crime of great magnitude is going to be repeatedly covered in the local media. Nevertheless, without a fair and impartial jury, justice cannot be served, one way or the other. In my opinion, cases like this should be moved far, far away from the local county in which the crime is alleged to have taken place. In the below case, today marks the third day of jury selection. Obviously the defense attorneys made a previous motion for change of venue, which was denied or “taken under consideration” by the Judge until either a jury is seated, or enough potential jurors are dismissed for cause that a jury cannot be seated. Either way, if it has already taken three days to seat the jury, obviously most of the potential jurors have prior knowledge of the case from media accounts or other local conversation or gossip. This creates a tough row to hoe for the defense if a jury is seated – since all it takes for a juror to be deemed “fair and impartial” by the Court is for them to say, “yeah, I think he’s guilty, but I probably can be fair and impartial….”

From an article in the Charleston Daily Mail:

Opening statements are likely to begin Monday in the trial the man accused of sexually assaulting and killing Putnam County toddler Logan Shane Goodall.

After three days of questioning potential jurors, defense lawyers and prosecutors on Thursday had not yet chosen the 12 people who will decide the fate of Michael Kent Merrifield.

“We’re slowly but surely trucking along,” defense lawyer Mike Clifford said Thursday morning.

The 2-year-old boy died in September 2005. An autopsy found that he had been severely beaten and sexually assaulted before his death.

Merrifield, 32, once dated the boy’s mother, Pepper Dawn Eren. He is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault, sexual abuse by a parent or guardian and child neglect by a guardian or parent resulting in death. In August 2006, Merrifield pleaded not guilty to the charges.

His lawyers have long maintained that they wouldn’t be able to find an objective jury in Putnam County because of media attention to Merrifield’s case. In September, Putnam Circuit Judge Ed Eagloski denied their written motion to change venue because of publicity.

“Obviously [publicity] is the problem, and it is taking a long time,” Clifford said. “I’ve been involved in criminal trials where the selection of the jury didn’t take an hour.”

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Sorsaia said he has a policy not to publicly comment on a trial until it is over. He would only say he expects opening statements to begin Monday.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors started individually questioning potential jurors Tuesday at the Putnam courthouse in Winfield, Clifford said.

“I think we’ve questioned probably close to 40 at this point,” he said Thursday morning.

Dozens of potential jurors were eliminated even before questioning began due to their answers to a jury questionnaire, he said.

Eren originally also faced first-degree murder charges, but pleaded guilty last year to child neglect causing injury. In September, she was sentenced to one to 10 years in prison.

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