The Trial: Day 1

Day 1, Dec. 14, 2004

ATLANTA – A jury of eight women and six men, including two alternates, was selected late Tuesday in the trial of Jason Futch, accused of killing Mike Weaver in an Atlanta apartment last year.

Testimony is scheduled to begin Wednesday at 1 p.m., and not in the morning as had been anticipated. Superior Court Judge Tom Campbell said he had a funeral to attend at 11 a.m., so the start of the trial was delayed until after the lunch hour.

The proceedings on Wednesday should begin with opening statements from the attorneys — prosecutors Shukura Polk, who is being assisted by Ron Boyter, both from the Fulton County District Attorney’s office; and Futch’s defense attorneys, Richard Hagler and Stephen Hyles, who have a law firm in Columbus, Ga.

Tuesday’s jury selection began just before 10 a.m. and continued until just after 6 p.m., with a one-hour break for lunch. At the end of the day, a jury of eight women (five white, three black) and six men (five white, one black) was selected to hear the evidence and decide the case. I don’t know this for sure, but usually a jury consists of 12 people and two alternates, thus 14 people were selected.

Here are the sights and sounds from Day 1.

The scene

The Fulton County Courthouse is located in downtown Atlanta, about three blocks from the gold-domed state Capitol building. The portion of the courthouse where the courtroom is located looks like it was remodeled perhaps 10 years ago, carpeted halls, quiet, multiple courtrooms with seating areas set aside off the hallways for witnesses waiting to be called.

The courtroom is on the fourth floor. The room is about 60 feet long and about 45 feet wide, with a 10-foot ceiling, though the ceiling above the area where the attorneys and judge sit is recessed to about 14 feet, with lighting hanging below. The walls are oak-colored, not solid oak but probably veneer, all the way around the room. The walls are split into panels about 3 ½ feet wide. A couple of them are doors that lead into side rooms, offices or conference rooms, and are distinguished as doors only by the recessed handles and door locks. The walls are mostly bare, except for a clock on the wall to the judge’s right and a large portrait of what must be a famous person — Judge Edgar E. Pomeroy — on the wall to the left of the judge, adjacent to the chairs where the jury sits. The room is carpeted with a greenish-brown carpet.

Glass doors, with entryways, are located at the back, to the sides of the spectator seating area. The judge sits at the other end of the courtroom, on a pedestal, with the front being about five feet from the floor. A seal of the state of Georgia is on the wall behind him. A witness chair is to his left, and his staff attorney has a seat and computer to his right. The judge enters and exits the courtroom through doors off the corners of the room, nearest his bench.

There are six walnut-colored benches for spectators. Five of them are exactly 24 feet long and seat exactly 12 people each. The sixth bench is perhaps 20 feet long, slightly shorter due to the design of the rear wall, the other side of which is the hallway. There are two tall, narrow windows in that rear wall to the hallway, but both windows are covered with blinds that remain closed.

There are eight people inside the working area of the courtroom – the judge, the defendant, his two attorneys, the two prosecutors, a court reporter and the judge’s staff attorney at her computer.

The participants

Judge Tom Campbell – His hair is grayer than shown in our photo, and he’s a few years older. He speaks slowly in typically Southern fashion, but confidently. He is a new judge, appointed only this year by Gov. Sonny Perdue. We were told he was a civil court lawyer, and we’re told he was relatively unfamiliar with criminal court law. However, he’s already supervised two murder trials and, according to the chief prosecutor, is careful in his rulings. If he’s unsure about a point of law, he will consult with his staff attorney before issuing a ruling – she sits next to a computer which, apparently, could be used to research legal issues. But the judge seems friendly and courteous and, we’ve been told from other sources, is extremely intelligent and competent.

The defendant, Jason Futch – He’s short and thickly built, and looks very much like his mother. In court today Jason wore wire-rimmed glasses in the morning, but no glasses in the afternoon. He had on a blue blazer, a blue pin-striped shirt with a red tie. He said little to nothing during the jury-selection proceedings, but sat quietly at the defense attorney’s table.

Prosecutors Shukura Polk and Ron Boyter – Ms. Polk is relatively young, attractive, thin, about 5-foot-8 perhaps, with long, straight black hair that falls to the middle of her shoulder blades. She speaks quickly, confidently, and seems very assure of herself. She wore a greenish/gray colored suit. Mr. Boyter is assisting Ms. Polk with the prosecution. He happens to be a Central High School graduate, was there when Ms. Espy was principal, and Steve Smith was his history teacher. He’s a big man, tall, perhaps 6-foot-2, and a little on the heavy side. He has dark hair, wears glasses, and wore a suit nearly the same in color as Ms. Polk’s, with a white shirt and brown tie. He, too, seems very sharp.

Defense attorneys Richard Hagler and Stephen Hyles – They have a law firm together in Columbus, Ga., apparently specializing in criminal defense. Hagler is similar in size to Boyter, rather tall with dark graying hair. He sports a short gray mustache and peers over the reading glasses that ride on his nose. He’s not quite as heavy as Boyter, but still a large man. He wore a charcoal-black pin-striped suit, white shirt with a purple and gray striped tie. Hyles is not as large as Hagler, and not quite as tall. He also wore a dark suit, glasses and has graying hair.

Futch’s parents – Carl and Cindy Futch were present throughout the jury selection process Tuesday. Cindy wore a dark green pant suit. She’s very blonde, with short hair, and very much looks like Jason. She’s not very tall and rather stocky. Carl is also bulky, perhaps muscular, and has very short blonde hair, almost a crew cut. He wore a navy blue suit.

The process

8:55 a.m. — The two defense attorneys are seated at the defense table when I arrived. For a few minutes, we are the only three people in the courtroom. Jason Futch is outside in the hallway with his parents. When they arrive they take a seat in the first bench of seats behind the partition that separates the spectator seating and the attorney’s work area. Jason sits between his two parents, and they say very little to one another or to their attorneys.

The prosecutors arrive and introduce themselves to me. We chat for about 10 minutes as we all wait for the judge to arrive. Jurors who arrive are escorted out of the courtroom by a deputy and are told to wait in the hall, where they are given a number and told to keep their place in the line.

9:40 a.m. — The judge apparently has arrived. The bailiff tells the few spectators in the courtroom to move to the back row of benches. I am seated in one corner; the Futches leave Jason, who goes to sit at the defense attorney table, and the parents pass by me and take a seat in the same row eight feet away. We are the only spectators. The attorneys are called away and go into the judge’s chambers. They return in about 10 minutes, apparently ready to go.

9:53 a.m. – The first 12 members of the prospective juror pool are brought in by a uniformed sheriff’s deputy and take their place in the front bench row. But an attorney signals to the bailiff, who speaks to the attorney and then asks the jurors to leave again, his mistake, as there are motions that need to be handled outside the presence of the jury.

9:55 a.m. – Judge Tom Campbell arrives and speaks to the attorneys, asking them about any motions. Prosecutor Shukura Polk rises and says there are a couple of issues that need to be discussed. She said both the prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed to not make any references to any previous forms of aggressive behavior displayed by Jason Futch. But she says an issue about medicine has not been resolved. Her motion asks (in so many words) that the attorneys should not be allowed to refer to medications Futch was taking. Apparently, his attorneys contend he has been diagnosed as ADD and ADHD, and was taking drugs like Paxil and Ritalin. The prosecutor asked the judge to grant a motion opposing testimony about his use of the drugs. The defense attorneys argued the references to those drugs should be allowed. However, Judge Campbell granted the prosecutors’ motion, which prompted defense attorney Richard Hagler to issue what he called a standing objection.

10:10 a.m. – The 60 prospective jurors file in and sit 12 to a bench, completely filling the first five benches. All of the jurors carry a large card with their juror number on it. The judge welcomes the crowd, thanks them for their service and then reads the indictment issued by the grand jury. He reads the charges in their entirety. With regard to the aggravated assault charges, Judge Campbell says the charges are based in part on a statement Jason made during the altercation, when he threatened the two boys in the room where he stood with the gun. The judge said he told each boy, “You don’t know me. Get out of my way. I’m going to kill him.”

With that, the judge started asking general questions of the entire group of prospective jurors. He would ask things like whether any of them had previously served on a jury. If they had, they raised their juror number and the attorneys made note of it. The judge asked several questions, then Polk and Hagler had the opportunity to do the same thing. Question after question went the same way. Had anyone been the victim of a crime? Relatives who are law enforcement officers? Know where The Summit at Lenox apartment complex is located? Do they own a gun? Do they drink alcohol? Where they in a fraternity of a sorority? Did they ever try to break up a fight?

After all of the questions were asked of the jurors as a group, the first row of 12 jurors was shown to the jury box. Then each juror was questioned by each attorney. Specifics about their opinions about guns, have they ever fired a gun, were they at college parties where there was drinking, have they seen anyone drunk, do they have children, their ages, have they ever witnessed a crime, and so on.

12:25 p.m. – The attorneys finish questioning the first 12 jurors. Judge Campbell issues a recess, and tells the second row of jurors to be back by 1:30 p.m., the next row by 2 p.m., the next 2:30 and the last at 3 p.m. Everyone breaks for lunch. I go to a cafeteria area and return about 1:05 p.m., get out the laptop computer and start typing up some of this material.

1:30 p.m. – The judge reconvenes, and the individual questioning of jurors continues. It’s painstakingly slow. If the judge was allowing 30 minutes for each row of jurors, he grossly underestimated the time the attorneys would take. The second row went slowly, and the third row as well. All kinds of people were present — teachers, businessmen, stay-at-home mothers, a college student athlete, an attorney, the unemployed, all kinds of people. About half of them were white, about half were black, some Hispanic; also about a 50-50 split among men and women. Question after question, juror after juror. The judge made no attempt to hurry anyone along.

3:43 p.m. – The questioning for prospective juror number 30 ends. Exactly half of the jurors present now have been questioned.

4:17 p.m. – Row number three, and juror 36, completes his questioning. That row returns to their seats in the spectator area, and row number four replaces them in the jury box. And the individual questioning by the attorneys resumes. Sometimes Polk, sometimes Boyter, sometimes Hagler, sometimes Hyles. Jurors who have returned to – or not yet been called from – the spectator area are free to come and go from the courtroom. But there have been no breaks since the proceedings resumed at 1:30.

4:56 pm. – After juror number 43 was questioned, the judge stopped the proceedings and said he would consult with attorneys in his chambers to see if they felt they had enough jurors to be able to select a jury. If not, the questioning would continue.

5:23 p.m. – The defense attorneys and Jason emerge with a bailiff and enter a conference room off to the side of the courtroom. The bailiff tells the assembled jurors that they’ll take a 10-minute break, then come back and – apparently – try to pick a jury, and dismiss the rest of the jury pool.

5:40 p.m. – The bailiff rousts the defense attorneys and Jason from their meeting room, and they return to their seats in the courtroom. He retrieves the prosecutors from their meeting room, and they return with the court reporter. The judge arrives and says they will begin the process of striking the jury. A typed list with juror’s names on it starts at the prosecutor’s desk. She strikes a name and the bailiff hands the list to the defense attorney, who strikes another name. The list is passed back and forth as attorneys cross off the names of jurors they do not want on the jury. The list goes back and forth at least 25 times. The room is quiet, jurors only whisper, probably trying to guess who stays and who goes. After 22 minutes, when the attorneys are done with the list, the bailiff takes the list to the judge, who reviews it.

6:03 p.m. — The names of the 14 jurors are read and they take chairs in the jury box. The judge tells everyone that the proceedings begin Wednesday at 1 p.m., and the jurors are dismissed. However, the judge’s attorney reports to the attorneys that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has filed a request to put a still photographer in the courtroom and, apparently, cover the trial. It’s a fairly routine motion for the media, and judges routinely approve the requests. Nevertheless, apparently Futch’s attorney will argue against allowing the cameras, so a hearing will be held at 9 a.m.; the judge will rule on that, leave to attend the funeral, and then return for trial to begin at 1 p.m.

Notes and thoughts on the process

Strange but true – As I was preparing to leave the house and drive to Atlanta early Tuesday, I was in need of a tablet for taking notes. There were none on the desk because we recently cleaned that area and all the available papers had been scooped up and deposited somewhere else. So, there wasn’t much paper around. I went to an area in the dining room, near where we keep some books stacked up, and some maps, and occasionally tablets. Indeed, I found one in that bookcase, a spiral notebook that looked mostly unused. I looked inside the front cover and found no writing, so I took it and was on my way. I used this notebook in the courtroom to take notes. After I filled up that first empty page, I turned it and found notes. It was Mike’s handwriting, apparently notes from a calculus class. On the next two pages were biology notes. On the back of one of those pages were some addition and subtraction problems, as Mike was pretty clearly trying to balance his checkbook. None of the answers were large numbers — $47.00 and $69.84. (But of course a low bank balance never stopped him from spending, but that’s another story.) And finally, there was a little “to do” list with three little notations on that page: One said “Call bank” and it was crossed out. The next said “E-Mail Professors” and the last said: “check on oil job.” Sounds just like Mike, but I found it strange but very appropriate that the only notebook I could find, when I needed it, was one of Mike’s.

Evidence – Prosecutors said they expect Futch to testify in his own defense. Since there is so much evidence against him, it would appear to us at least — and we don’t have a trained eye — that the only way he can try to minimize his sentence is by constructing some sort of rationale for what happened. His attorneys have admitted there is a lot of evidence that they will not contest, and apparently they do not plan to call any witnesses beyond those the prosecutors plan to call. The defense apparently will not dispute much of what happened, so perhaps they will argue why it happened. Prosecutors have been asked if they would accept some sort of a plea bargain, but the prosecutors have consistently declined. They are not willing to compromise the number of years in prison that Jason would serve in exchange for a speedy end to the proceedings.

Cafeteria – Visitors to the courthouse can access a cafeteria in a neighboring building by descending the elevator to the second floor and following signs. The short walk will take people through an enclosed walkway over the street and into another building on Peachtree Street. The cafeteria only takes cash, no cards. Hot food is available, as well as a deli for sandwiches. Surely there are other restaurants nearby, but we haven’t yet explored the neighborhood.

Reporting – This day’s report is so long because I had so much time to complete it. While the attorneys were questioning the prospective jurors, I was able to sit in the back of the courtroom and type on our laptop computer, writing what you’ve read in this story. That won’t happen tomorrow. We’ll be seated in a different area, and I don’t want to be typing during testimony anyway. So, I’ll be taking fewer notes and the report won’t be as long. But we’ll do our best.

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