Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lehigh Acres child murder trial moves slowly

Alberto Hernandez's case still needs jury


View photos from the Hernandez trial

Jury selection moved at a snail's pace Tuesday in the murder trial of Alberto Hernandez and attorneys will spend at least most of today trying to find an impartial jury.

Attorneys spent eight hours questioning 35 prospective jurors - about 14 minutes spent on each - seeking their views on the death penalty and if they have been exposed to media coverage surrounding Hernandez's case.

Hernandez, 41, faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, sexual battery and aggravated child abuse. He is charged with raping and killing his 13-year-old stepdaughter, Michelle Fontanez, in February 2006. He allegedly attacked her in their Lehigh Acres home after the Florida Department of Children and Families removed him from the house.

Of the 35 jurors questioned individually in a closed-door jury room, 14 were dismissed because of their views on the death penalty or because of related issues. Hernandez doesn't speak fluent English and needs interpreters to translate all that is said, which has slowed the process. The trial is expected to run into next week.

Most of those who were dismissed told attorneys they either believed so strongly in the death penalty or in a life sentence they couldn't consider the opposite penalty if Hernandez is convicted. Several others don't speak English - and wouldn't be able to serve because they wouldn't understand testimony, evidence and deliberations - and others had family issues that prevented them from sitting on the jury.

Starting at 8:30 a.m. today, attorneys will continue the task of finding 12 jurors and two alternate jurors to try Hernandez. They will question 25 more prospective jurors about the two issues. Those who make it through will join the 21 left from Monday and they will be questioned about other issues to make sure they qualify to serve on the jury.

Attorneys need a high number of jurors because each set of attorneys is able to strike 10 prospective jurors and 14 are needed for the jury. That means at least 34 potential jurors are needed. Some jurors could be dismissed because they can't stay out of work for more than a week to serve, have family members in law enforcement or, perhaps, because they have been exposed to child or sexual abuse.

Fifteen people were crammed into the jury room -Hernandez, an interpreter, Lee Circuit Judge Edward Volz Jr., a court reporter, two deputies, five attorneys, a paralegal and three reporters -watching the proceedings.

Hernandez sat at one end of a board-room style table that is typically the setting for jury deliberations. Wearing a tie, a gray suit and white shirt, Hernandez looked on nervously while listening to an English-to-Spanish interpreter, who was seated behind his left shoulder. His knees quaked continuously underneath the table. At one point, Hernandez crossed his hands and tapped his thumbs repeatedly.

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