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Wake death penalty case raises questions about jury selection

Posted June 26, 2012
Updated July 26, 2012

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— Should the jury selection process for death penalty cases in North Carolina be different than non-capital murder cases?

It's a question up for debate among prosecutors acting on behalf of the public and victims, defense attorneys working to be sure their clients get fair trials and judges charged with the task of administering justice fairly and efficiently.

In Wake County Superior Court on Thursday, defense attorneys for Armond Devega, a Raleigh man possibly facing the death penalty for two shooting deaths in 2008, asked a judge to allow potential jurors to be questioned individually when the case goes to trial, currently scheduled for Sept. 4.

Usually in jury selection – a process called voir dire – attorneys and judges interview jurors in groups of 12.

Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner denied the defense motion, saying that the circumstances of the case didn't warrant a special jury selection method.

Jurors in Wake County's most recent capital murder trial – the case involving the death of North Carolina Board of Education member Kathy Taft – were questioned individually, and voir dire took more than five weeks. The case had been covered extensively in the media and dealt with sensitive subject matter involving details of the defendant's past.

The current case hasn't had the same public exposure, Gessner said, and he is concerned that questioning jurors individually would be inefficient, time-consuming and costly.

"This has been a long-standing concern I've had about what's the most effective and efficient way to administer justice," he said during Thursday's pre-trial hearing.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who oversees the prosecution of every case but isn’t directly involved in Devega’s, agrees with Gessner, saying that streamlining jury selection is a way to cut the cost of death penalty cases.

Jury Seats Wake death penalty case raises questions about jury selection

"I think, unless there's some overriding reason to individually question people, we ought to be questioning people in groups of 12," Willoughby said. "I mean, it's much more efficient. It saves time. It saves money. There really aren't any issues that matter (in regard to jury selection) in most cases."

Devega's defense attorney, Terry Alford, however, raised concerns in court why the prosecutors don't reach plea deals for life imprisonment if the state is concerned about the cost and time of capital murder cases.

"We should be very selective in the cases that we try," Willoughby said. "That's what the prosecutors in this state are doing. We only try 10, 12, 15, 20 death penalty cases a year out of 600 or 800 homicides (statewide) a year."

Local defense attorney Karl Knudsen, who is also not involved in Devega's case, said individual voir dire helps protect defendants' rights and is much more beneficial for the defense in death penalty cases.

"It allows for a freer exchange of information. It allows a person, in my opinion, to more accurately tell you what their opinions really are," Knudsen said. "Also, as the process goes on, it gives you more opportunity to judge what your jury is looking like, what's likely to be coming up … and it allows both sides to have a better opportunity to pick a jury."

"But the expense, in terms of time and money, may, in some people's minds, offset that," he added.

Defense attorneys say the best way to cut costs is to make plea deals or eliminate the death penalty.

"It's never made sense, financially. The cost of fully litigating a capital case over the average 10 or 15 year life span of the case … far outweighs, in my opinion, the benefit to society," Knudsen said. "I mean, if you can lock someone up – and they're going to die in prison anyway – why do we want to spend $1 million or more trying to set an artificial date as to when that happens?"

Willoughby, however, says he believes group voir dire can be fair in death penalty cases.

"I don't think people are embarrassed about their views, whether they're supportive or against the death penalty," he said. "I think, either way, people are fairly comfortable in talking about that."

Devega is charged with two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and nine counts of robbery in a series of robberies between January and October 2008.

Investigators say he shot and killed Anthony Dwayne Scarborough, 32, on Feb. 13, 2008, and Stephanie Powell Anderson, 39, on April 10, 2008, and injured Modesta Fernandez Lucas on Sept. 10, 2008.

Authorities have said that Devega and Scarborough knew each other while they were imprisoned at the Johnston Correctional Center and that Devega might have held a grudge against Scarborough.

Anderson, a store clerk at a Wilco-Hess gas station on Trawick Road in Raleigh, was ambushed as she arrived at work and was shot when she was unable to open the store’s safe, investigators have said.

Fernandez-Lucas, a clerk at the last robbery location, was shot several times but survived.

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  • loveapex Jul 27, 2012

    deterrent theory".

    its not a deterrent because they sit on Death row for decades, get treated like movie stars during each and every trial and appeal. special treatment, etc. Don't even argue that with me, I spent plenty of time working there. Where is the deterrent?

  • loveapex Jul 27, 2012

    that site comments has now been removed.

    Interesting! MUST NOT LET THE PUBLIC BE A PART OF THE GOVERNMENT SYSTEM - HIDE ALL INFO!!!!!

    See ya - Bev

  • Inter Alios Jul 27, 2012

    Colon Willoughby made the decision to go after the death penalty in this guys case knowing full well it would ratchet up the costs of the trial. The fact that he cites the costs of individual voir dire of the jurors as the reason for not doing it tells us just how much he values a fair and just verdict. He is such a hypocrit!

  • rcrdngcountry Jul 27, 2012

    if found guilty seems like he would deserve the death penalty.
    he is charged with cold blooded killing, and i am 100% for the
    death penalty for this type of heartless murder. NORTH CAROLINA
    NEEDS TO WAKE UP AND STOP TRYING TO DO AWAY WITH THE DEATH PENALTY and carry it out when it is given. THE VICTEMS DESERVE
    AT LEAST THIS FOR WHAT THEY HAD TO GIVE UP. its time we think of
    them for a change.

  • davidk_at_unc Jul 27, 2012

    "The liberal Democrats & their pal trial lawyers are doing everything in their power to get rid of the Death Penalty in NC. ... If you ask me, the Death Penalty isn't utilized enough in this State. The District Attorneys should use it on all 1st Degree Murder Cases with aggravating factors!" -- kodac31

    All you rabid "string 'em up", "fry 'em", "put them in front of a firing squad" folks might want to take a look at these web sites:
    http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/murder-rates-nationally-and-state#MRord

    http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/22/us/absence-executions-special-report-states-with-no-death-penalty-share-lower.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    Both of them contain reports showing that murder rates in states with the death penalty are significantly higher than in states without. So much for your "deterrent theory".

  • ladyblue Jul 27, 2012

    They show one male prisoner was received in 1985. It does not indicate that is when he was sentenced to death, but defendants are typically kept in county jail prior to sentencing. loveapex-- actually i found the gov. site yesterday that says he has been on death row since 1985 and i stated a comment to the effect. that site comments has now been removed..

  • ladyblue Jul 27, 2012

    Nobody has the right to put some one to death,not even the law,only GOD has the right!And thats the bottom line.

    re read your Bible. God also acknowledged the difference in Laws of God and Laws of the Land meaning the laws made by humans.

    Bleeding Heart Liberal: "George Bush".

    and who put George Bush in this article...He needs to write a book of the times he's been blamed for something. I'm sure it would be a best seller among some people... just ridiculous

  • dollibug Jul 27, 2012

    ***The death penalty in NC is dead on arrival....

    And it should be....society has NO TRUST in the NC Judicial System....who wants to be responsible for causing an INNOCENT PERSON getting a death penalty? Actually, who wants to be a part of the Crooked Judicial System anyway?????????? SO much CORRUPTION AND COVER UP EVERYWHERE....there was one time a *trust that those in charge would do what is fair and just*...this no longer exists...just look at the INNOCENT PEOPLE who are indicted, tried and convicted of crimes that they did not do....OR THEY ARE FORCED INTO TAKING A PLEA DEAL...for a crime that they are not GUILTY OF...

  • dollibug Jul 27, 2012

    *** Judicial System joke.

    Actually the Judicial System is a GAME FOR ATTORNEYS, DAs and judges....plus law enforcement as well as those under probation....these people are allowed to do whatever they care to do....they do not necessarily go by what is LAW or what is legal....and they can get by with it....this is all well and good....as no one knows better....when you are stuck with a CORRUPT ATTORNEY....everything works out to their benefit....

    Yep.....I agree....what happened to the *INTEGRITY of AMERICA*??? IT IS INDEED ALL A JOKE....

  • dollibug Jul 27, 2012

    *****They should make the jury selection a random process without the Defense Attorney, District Attorney (prosecutor), and judge being able to reject jurors.

    This would be a smart and easy way to do this....not enough time *wasted* in doing this either....but perhaps a fair way to do it.....as long as there is someone on the jury who actually knows and understands what is going on....so much could be done to IMPROVE the system....but then this would actually allow a FAIR AND JUST TRIAL....and I am NOT SURE those *who run the show would approve*....

    Just recently I read up on how one case in Guilford County was handled...http://www.change.org/petitions/the-governor-of-nc-grant-clemency-petition-for-janet-danahey?utm_medium=email&utm_source=signature_receipt this is an EYE OPENER....10 years AFTER IT TOOK PLACE....and this was called FAIR AND JUST?????

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