GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Jury selection begins this week in the trial of Jason Dalton, who is accused of killing six people nearly three years ago during a shooting rampage in the Kalamazoo area.
The bloody shooting spree gained international attention that could have an impact when it comes to picking a jury. The question is how to find a jury that isn’t tainted after so much information was disseminated to the public.
Surprisingly, officials say, it’s not that difficult — but that doesn’t mean the courts aren’t being extra careful.
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson had to deal with two high-profile trials for murderer Jeffrey Willis, convicted in November of 2017 of the murder of Rebekah Bletsch and in May 2018 of the murder of Jessica Heeringa.
“In the last several years, maybe even decades, this was the biggest high-profile case that involved a lot of attention, media attention both digital and print, social media,” Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday.
In Muskegon, the circuit court took extraordinary and time-consuming steps to make sure jurors were not influenced by information not presented in the courtroom. That included a questionnaire and talking to each potential juror individually.
“We didn’t want to waste time on jurors that had already made up their mind,” Hilson said.
Between 400 and 500 people were called for the jury pool. Officials talked to about 100 people before choosing 14 to hear the trial.
“Although it took a lot of time, it was well worth the time and effort,” Hilson said.
But he learned what many prosecutors do when it comes to high-profile cases:
“There were quite a few people that had no idea, because they don’t watch the news or they don’t have internet access, and I was surprised by that,” Hilson said.
Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said he is confident that there are proper procedures in place for Dalton’s trial.
“Ninety-nine percent of it is the same as what we do in other cases here. There is a little bit of difference because of the media attention,” Getting said.
Prosecutors say just hearing about a case is not enough to disqualify someone.
“They have to be able to set aside what they think they know and base their decision on what they actually learn in the courtroom,” Getting said.
Social media has made selection tougher, forcing officials to sometimes look at the Facebook and Twitter accounts of potential jurors.
“Whether or not they are connected in some form or fashion to a witness or to the victim in some way,” Hilson said.
Work will begin in the judge’s chambers Thursday morning to whittle down the jury pool of 200. Voir dire, the questioning of potential jurors by attorneys on both sides, begins Friday.
“We haven’t had a situation yet where we have not been able to seat a fair and impartial jury and I’m sure we’re going to be able to do that in this case, too,” Getting said.
Opening statements will come early next week. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
Jurors will have the option to find Dalton guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence without parole, second-degree murder, which includes the possibility of parole, or not guilty.
KALAMAZOO SHOOTING RAMPAGE
Dalton has been sitting in the Kalamazoo County Jail for two years, 10 months and 12 days, charged with six counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and eight counts of felony use of a firearm in connection to the shooting rampage.
“We’ll be asking the jury to return a guilty verdict on each one of those charges, Getting told 24 Hour News 8.
The surreal nightmare started just before 6 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2016, when police say Dalton shot Tiana Carruthers, then 25, multiple times at The Meadows Townhomes in Richland Township. She was seriously injured but survived.
Over about the next four hours, Dalton picked up fares in his capacity as an Uber driver, though none of them were hurt.
Shortly after 10 p.m., investigators say, Dalton stopped at the Seelye Auto Group on Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo. There, 17-year-old Tyler Smith and his father Rich Smith, 53, were gunned down in the parking lot.
Police say Dalton then drove to the nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant in Texas Township, where he allegedly shot and killed Judy Brown, Barbara Hawthorne, Mary Jo Nye and Mary Lou Nye, and seriously wounded Abigail Kopf, then 14.
Within two hours, Dalton was arrested during a traffic stop in downtown Kalamazoo.
Dalton would claim in a statement to police that the Uber app “literally took over his mind and body” as it changed colors and displayed the Eastern Star symbol. He said the app indicated who he should shoot.
“There have been some delays in the process brought about by issues regarding evidence admissibility,” Getting said, adding that the delays will ensure a conviction sticks. “I’d much rather on the front end of this to make sure we get this case handled the right way rather than trying to undo something down the road.”
He said while the surviving victims and the families of the slain have been patient, the start of the trial is welcome for both them and the state.
“They’re ready for this case to go, too,” he said.