Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jury selection resumes in the death penalty trial for Shawna Forde

Jury selection resumed on Wednesday, Jan. 19, in the death penalty trial for Shawna Forde at Pima County Superior Court.

Voir dire was scheduled to resume Jan. 11 after 225 prospective jurors filled out the Jan. 5 questionnaire, but a combination of a personal emergency for a defense counsel and the events of Jan. 8 when six people were killed and 13 were wounded at a Congress on Your Corner event being held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D. Ariz., prompted Judge John S. Leonardo to postpone jury selection until Jan. 19.

Hon. John S. Leonardo
Prior to bringing the first half the 98 jurors remaining in the pool for the case, Judge Leonardo denied another defense motion to continue the trial. This motion was based upon news reports published in local media since the jurors had filled out the questionnaires in the case. The second motion denied by Judge Leonardo dealt with voir dire procedures urged by defense. And, Judge Leonardo quashed a defense subpoena for a member of the Victim Witness Program at the Pima County Attorney’s Office.

Mini-opening statements

Prior to asking questions of the prospective jurors mini-opening statements were delivered by Prosecutor Rick Unklesbay and defense counsel Eric Larsen. Unklesbay told the jurors that Raul “Junior” Flores, his wife Gina Marie Gonzalez and their daughter Brisenia, were at home in Arivaca, a small town southwest of Green Valley, “kind of remote,” when there was a knock on their door at 1 a.m. on May 30, 2009.

Flores answered the door and “three, possibly four individuals” who identified themselves as law enforcement entered the home. Unklesbay said one of the individuals “shot Raul several times and then shot Gina several times.” Unklesbay said Brisenia was shot “twice in the head” with a .45 caliber handgun. During his mini-opening statement Larsen was more specific pointing to each of his cheeks saying Brisenia “had a couple of bullet holes in her face.”

Larsen also acknowledged to the jurors that “criminal cases are always difficult to sit on. You have people who are killed and you have people who have been accused of doing the killing,” Larsen added. “You have to decide the innocence or the guilt. We recognize how emotional this is.”

Larsen made it clear that “we are not conceding that the death penalty is appropriate for Shawna Forde. You are being asked to do something you don’t have a lot of experience with. You will have to look inside your heart in order to treat her fairly.”


It became clear as voir dire continued that most of the jurors did not understand that a death penalty case in Arizona includes three phases—the guilt phases where the jury determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant, the aggravation phase where the jury determines if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty and the penalty phase where the jury is presented with evidence in mitigation in an attempt to persuade the jury to return a verdict of life in prison. “If you find her innocent the case is done,” Larsen said. “Dispassionately evaluate the evidence.”

The jurors were also told that Forde is charged with felony murder in the deaths of Flores and his daughter as well as charges of one count of attempted first-degree murder; one count of burglary in the first-degree; one count of aggravated assault, serious physical injury; one count of aggravated assault, deadly weapon/dangerous instrument; one count of armed robbery; and one count of aggravated armed robbery. “The state is alleging that Ms. Forde was an accomplice and not the person who pulled the trigger,” Unklesbay said.

There were six jurors excused from the panel of 25 in the morning session due to scheduling and job-related issues. One additional juror was excused due to his views on the death penalty.


Jurors questioned after lunch informed the court that of various issues. One juror said she had adopted the children of a homicide victim with a case that was still pending in Pima County. Another juror said his sister’s former boyfriend had recently been murdered. A third juror said: “the system is flawed” and “I don’t want to be put into the position of making an irreversible mistake.” A fourth juror stated: I cannot make a choice to sentence someone to get killed.”

Another 11 jurors were excused during the afternoon session.

There was one point of levity during the afternoon session. A juror was asked about the death penalty. Before answering he asked Judge Leonardo if he could take a restroom break. Before Judge Leonardo could tell the jury to return in 10 minutes that juror ran from the courtroom holding areas in his mid-section. When court resumed, Judge Leonardo asked the juror: “Are you better prepared to answer now?”

In reference to the Jan. 8 shootings, a juror in the afternoon group reported she was a friend of Daniel Hernandez. “My friend was the one who saved the congresswoman,” she said. She also reported that she had not spoken with Hernandez since the incident.

And, another juror, who had a career in media relations, said that one of her close friends was a close friend of Ron Barber, district chief for Giffords. Finally, a juror was excused because his tribal traditions prevented him from viewing photographs of the dead.

The remaining jurors were asked to return at 8:45 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 21. An additional pool of prospective jurors is due in court on Thursday, Jan. 20.


Meanwhile, Judge Leonardo granted a defense request for judicial security to provide medication for Forde who said she suffers from migraine headaches as the result of “suffering a stroke” earlier in her life.

© David S. Ricker, all rights reserved.