Jury selection continues in Kemar Johnson trial
The death penalty and media publicity took center stage Tuesday during day one of jury selection in the murder trial of Kemar Johnston.
Defense attorney David A. Brener of Fort Myers and Assistant State Attorney Robert Lee questioned 37 potential jurors beginning at 10:30 a.m. at the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers. Of the 37, 28 people were dismissed and nine were asked to return Wednesday.
One woman, who later was excused from the jury selection, explained that a relative of hers had been “raped, tortured, robbed and murdered.”
Asked if she could be fair and impartial during Johnston’s trial, the woman said, “Absolutely not.”
The day started with a jury pool of 100, but early Tuesday morning 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese excused one man who said that he understood “some” English and required a translator, along with a woman because of her pre-existing medical condition.
Those individually questioned — the remaining 61 potential jurors will return to the courthouse Wednesday — were asked a variety of questions, but the big ticket ones centered on how much they knew of the case because of the media and what their stance is on the death penalty.
The questions included whether they believe the death penalty is unjust, whether they could recommend the death penalty and in what cases they would recommend it. Jurors were also questioned about whether certain factors, such as a defendant’s mental capacity or the abuse of drugs or alcohol, would be considered when recommending a sentence.
Responses from those questioned ranged from standing against the death penalty to recommending the sentence in certain instances depending on the facts of the case. Several potential jurors also noted that they had acquired a basic to detailed understanding of the case from news stories and media reports.
Prior to the beginning of jury selection Tuesday, Brener discussed with Reese his amended motion requesting a change of venue, along with his original motion, due to the media publicity surrounding the case. They also talked about the death penalty in terms of questioning the potential jurors.
Throughout the one-on-one questioning Tuesday, Johnston listened quietly to the responses from the potential jurors, occasionally glancing from Reese to his attorneys to others present in the room. He regularly made eye contact with the potential juror being questioned.
Johnston, 23, faces two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon in the 2006 double murder of Alexis and Jeffrey Sosa in Cape Coral. Johnston, one of the alleged Cash Feenz defendants, faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.
According to Reese, the penalty in Florida if found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder is “life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” In certain exceptional cases, “the death penalty may be appropriate for the jury” to consider. Reese will make the final decision regarding any sentencing.
Ten people were arrested and charged in the slayings of Alexis, 18, and Jeffrey, 14. The Sosas were tied up and tortured at Johnston’s home, then taken to a north Cape industrial site where they were shot and Alexis was burned in the trunk of a car, according to officials.
Roderick Washington and Ashley Toye were found guilty following separate trials. Washington received four consecutive life sentences plus 30 years in prison, and Toye was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Melissa Rivera, Iriana Santos, Alexis Fernandez, Cody Roux and Michael Balint have each pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and will receive prison sentences varying between 14 years and 26 years in exchange for their testimony.
Kenneth Lopez is set to go to trial Feb. 1.
Paul Nunes, who pleaded guilty in August for a reduced sentence of 40 years, was appointed new counsel Monday. On Dec. 28, he requested that his plea deal, which requires him to testify against Johnston and Lopez, be withdrawn. Reese withheld making a ruling Monday on the withdrawal request to allow Nunes time to talk to his new attorney, Melodee Smith of Fort Lauderdale. A new court date for Nunes will be set this week.
Jury selection for Johnston’s trial will resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday in courtroom 5C. Assistant State Attorney Marie Doerr is also prosecuting the case, and attorney Terry Lenamon is serving as co-counsel for the defense.