Jury selection continues into second afternoon in Kemar Johnston trial
After about two and a half hours of jury selection in the murder trial of Kemar Johnston, court broke for lunch this afternoon with 10 more potential jurors dismissed out of the 12 questioned today.
Many of those questioned individually by the prosecution and state have acknowledged having some knowledge of the case. One woman said she knew some teens who knew the victims, Alexis and Jeffrey Sosa. When asked what she knew about the crime, the woman began to talk about it but choked up and started to cry. The woman was excused from the jury pool, along with a man who reported that “something happened in Cape Coral and a couple of people were killed.”
Ten people, alleged members of a gang called the Cash Feenz, were arrested and charged in 2006 in the slayings of Alexis, 18, and Jeffrey, 14. According to officials, the Sosas were tied up and tortured at Johnston’s home in Cape Coral, then taken to an industrial site in the north Cape where they were fatally shot and Alexis’ body was burned in the trunk of a vehicle.
Johnston, 23, faces two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted or life in prison without parole.
Jury selection in Johnston’s trial began Tuesday with a pool of about 100 people. Two jurors were excused early in the proceedings — a man understood only “some” English and a woman had a preexisting medical condition — then a second woman was dismissed for a religious conflict and a third woman, who also had a health issue, was excused. With the pool down to 96, the individual questioning began and continued throughout the day. Thirty-six were questioned and 27 were dismissed when court recessed at 5 p.m.
Defense attorney David A. Brener of Fort Myers started off Wednesday’s proceedings by citing characterizations of Johnston in local media reports, along with what he said has been misinformation about the crime that was reported as fact. The defense has repeatedly pushed for a change of venue, saying that the high level of local publicity about the case will not allow for a fair and impartial jury.
According the Brener, Johnston is reported as the one who shot both Alexis and Jeffrey Sosa and “orchestrated the murders.” He said both victims are reported to have been tortured and burned, when only one body was burned in the crime. Brener also voiced concerns that the jurors called back today may have seen or heard the information, despite instructions by the court to avoid any print or television reports about the case.
Assistant State Attorney Robert Lee responded to the defense’s concerns by stating that it is up to the jurors to follow the court’s instructions to not pay attention to any reports about the case, and that the media has a constitutional right to cover the trial and its proceedings. Lee added that during individual questioning, the defense has dismissed jurors because of their prior knowledge of the crime or opinion about the death penalty or the defendant’s guilt.
Twentieth Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese, who is presiding over the case, explained that he would rather attempt to seat a jury from the existing pool, than move forward with a change of venue. He said the trial could be moved to the Bay area, Stuart, Palm Beach or Miami, but that the move would not guarantee an untainted jury pool. Reese added that he is “trying to mindful of everyone’s schedule.”
“Let’s give it a try with the jurors we have,” he said.
Reese called the remaining jurors from Tuesday — about 60 — into courtroom 5C at the Lee County Justice Center at about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. In line with Tuesday’s proceedings, the prosecution, state, Reese and a few others moved into a small room attached to the courtroom for individual questioning of the potential jurors. In the room, questioning by each side again focused on what each juror knows about the case as well as their stance on the death penalty and its use.