Jury selection came down to the wire in Elk County Court
RIDGWAY - Seventyeight potential jurors reported to the Elk County Courthouse on Monday in Ridgway beginning at 9 a.m. for the April jury selection. Initially, there were four criminal cases on the docket, but some lastminute agreements removed the other three leaving only a single criminal case for the potential jurors.
Even with 78 potential jurors in the pool, the jury selection came down to the wire when only 30 potential jurors remained after Voir Dire questioning.
Joseph Florenti Cesa Jr., 35, of Dagus Mines, is charged with two counts of drug delivery resulting in death, a felony in the first degree; two felony counts of the manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance and criminal use of a communication facility, a felony in the third degree. Cesa rejected a plea deal last Monday that would have seen him spend nine months to two years in Elk County Prison.
Beginning with 78 potential jurors, the Voir Dire questioning eliminated 48 potential jurors over the next three hours under questioning from Judge McMahon, Assistant District Attorney Peter Reith, and Defense Attorney Joshua Maines.
Initially, a portion of the potential jurors were excused due to standing appointments or vacation plans on the scheduled days of the trial, which is set for April 20-21. One of the largest reasons for the exclusions of potential jurors came about because of the nature of the crimes that Cesa is charged with. Many potential jurors, when asked if they had friends or family members involved with drug abuse or knew of someone who had died from a drug overdose, raised their numbered cards and were questioned individually on whether they could remain impartial, with many of them saying "No."
By the time Voir Dire was completed, there were just 30 potential jurors for the prosecution and defense to choose from, which is the minimal amount needed in Elk County Court for potential jurors. After about an hour of passing the list back and forth between the assistant district attorney and defense council, a final dozen were chosen along with two alternates for the April trial. As to the three other cases that were up for jury selection on Monday, they all accepted guilty pleas and negotiated sentences.
Drew Patrick Curley, 29, of Rockton, reached a plea deal on charges including possession with intent to manufacture or deliver contraband, criminal use of a communication facility (I.e., a cell phone or texting app for communication regarding criminal activity), and possession of a controlled or counterfeit substance. He received a sentence of 22-60 months in State Prison.
Jeremiah Matthew Schuler, 41, of St. Marys, reached a plea arrangement on seven separate drug-related charges, including possession with intent, criminal use of a communication facility, possession of a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia. He received a sentence of 48-120 months in state prison.
Shiloh Elizabeth Siegel, 40, of St. Marys, accepted a plea deal on two counts each of forgery and theft by deception and will spend two days in Elk County Prison, followed by two years on probation.
The Honorable Shawn T. McMahon, President Judge of Elk and Cameron Counties, began the day by leading the Pledge of Allegiance before starting the court proceedings.
"On behalf of all of the judges and staff, I want to express our appreciation for your time. We know that you all have hectic lives and that being here involves some sacrifice, and I want to assure you that we do everything we can to ensure that your time is used efficiently and that your experience is meaningful,” McMahon said. "Our form of justice is considered one of the fairest in the world, as I or any other government official does not decide on guilt or innocence on a defendant but a jury of their peers."
McMahon went on to say, "I consider jury service to be one of the most important civic duties that a citizen can take part in, and you are now part of History as citizens of Elk County have been gathering in this courthouse since 1885 and fulfilling their duties such as some of you will be chosen to do today."
Judge McMahon laid out some preliminary rules for the gathered potential jurors after Elk County Prothonotary & Clerk of Courts Susanne
Straub Schneider administrated the standard oath to all those called to duty. Judge McMahon also pointed out Betsy Nissel, the Official Court Reporter "who is the most important person in this room" he said, nothing that she records every word spoken in the courtroom by all parties, and her position is critical to the proper recording of all cases brought before the bench, thus prompting the judge to request individuals to speak loudly and clearly when responding to questions.
Voir Dire (pronounced vwahr [with a nearsilent "r"] deer) is the questioning of prospective jurors by a judge and attorneys in court. Voir dire is used to determine if any juror is biased and/or cannot deal with the issues fairly or if there is a cause that will not allow a juror to serve. Knowledge of the facts; acquaintanceship with parties, witnesses, or attorneys; an occupation that might lead to bias; prejudice against a specific penalty; or previous experiences such as having been sued in a similar case are reasons for a potential juror to be removed from a jury panel.
One of the unspoken purposes of the Voir Dire is for the attorneys to get a feel for the personalities and likely views of the people on the jury panel. In some courts, the judge asks most of the questions, while in others, the lawyers are given substantial latitude and time to ask questions.
Some jurors may be dismissed for cause by the judge, and the attorneys may excuse others in "peremptory" challenges without stating any reason.
In Elk County Court, the presiding judge asks preliminary questions such as if the prospective jurors will be available at the scheduled dates and times of the trial, conflicts with work, childcare, or health-related questions. The prosecution asks more specific questions and presents a list of potential witnesses at the trial to see if any prospective jurors have a conflict with them, such as being related, having negative interactions, or having close friendships.
The defense drills into personal issues even further, making sure none of the jurors strongly negatively view the defendant, their lifestyle, relatives, or racial or religious views.
Finally, after many jurors are eliminated due to various factors, the prosecution and defense pass back and forth a list of prospective jurors until they arrive at a final list of 14 including 12 regular and two alternate jurors.