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Murphy trial may last weeks

by CHAUNCEY ROSS chauncey@indianagazette.net on April 17, 2013 11:00 AM

GREENSBURG — Almost four years after the shooting deaths of three women at a family-owned auto glass repair shop near Saltsburg, slaying suspect Kevin Murphy’s trial has gotten under way this week in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court.

If the pace of action in court is the same as that of pre-trial proceedings so far, it will be a drawn-out affair.

Murphy, 52, stands accused of first-degree murder for the slayings of his sister, Kris Lynn Murphy, 43; his mother, Doris Lynn Murphy, 69; and his aunt, Doris’ sister, Edith Cora Tietge, 81, who were discovered dead April 23, 2009, in the Ferguson Glass Services shop along Loyalhanna Dam Road. Each had been shot in the head with a .22 caliber handgun.

Kevin Murphy, of Conemaugh Township, was charged exactly one year later and has been held since then in Westmoreland County Prison without bail. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck intends to seek the death penalty if Murphy is convicted.

The last thing potential jurors are being told in the selection process is the first thing that’s kept most from being able to serve: The trial is expected to last four weeks, said the presiding judge, Alfred Bell.

Citing job requirements and family obligations, the vast majority of Westmoreland County residents summoned for jury duty since Monday have been excused.

By 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, 98 had been screened. Six have been empaneled.

Attorneys are trying to choose 12 primary jurors and four alternates to hear the case.

Some jurors have been dismissed from the pool for reasons other than personal hardships.

A woman who said she worked for a Roman Catholic church was “challenged for cause” by Peck after she said she opposes the death penalty.

Peck asked the judge to excuse a man who said he was unlikely to believe police officers’ testimony and claimed to be a victim of police brutality.

Murphy’s defense attorneys, Mark Bolkovac and Robert Bell, used a peremptory challenge to reject a woman, although she pledged she would render a fair and impartial verdict, after she mentioned her opposition to citizen ownership of firearms.

The prosecution and defense each are entitled to 20 such challenges in selecting a jury for a death-penalty case. Using a peremptory challenge, an attorney can dismiss a possible juror for any reason, even no reason, when no bias is apparent. When a juror shows some kind of partiality, lawyers on both sides and the judge agree to discharge the person for cause.

Attorneys Bell and Bolkovac asked to dismiss another potential juror for cause after she admitted a belief that someone who is arrested must be guilty of something.

“Do you feel that where there’s smoke, there’s fire?” Judge Bell asked her.

“There could be,” she said.

In addition to being asked whether they have religious, moral, ethical or other grounds for feeling a certain way about capital punishment and gun ownership, potential jurors are being questioned about whether they have served in a jury in the past, have worked in law enforcement, or have been a victim or witness of a crime.

They’re completing questionnaires asking about the jobs they’ve held the past 10 years and their level of education, their spouses’ jobs and education levels, and how much school their children have attended.

Many said they’ve read about the case in the newspapers but none said their media exposure to the murder case would influence their judgment, if selected to the jury.

Judge Bell admonished the lone juror chosen Tuesday to not watch TV or read the papers until the case is concluded.

Only a few in the pool of 49 jurors screened Tuesday said they knew anyone involved in the case. Judge Bell asked them to identify themselves if they knew him, any of the attorneys, the defendant, prosecuting officer Trooper Paul Depew, or any of 33 people who may testify in the trial.

Thirty of the 48 raised their hands when the judge asked if they would have trouble committing four weeks to the trial, including possible additional testimony and deliberation in a penalty phase after the main trial.

Finally Judge Bell asked if they believed TV shows like “CSI” accurately depict criminal investigations.

“Do you think this is the way it is?”

None raised their hands.

Jury selection was scheduled to continue this morning with a new pool of as many as 55 Westmoreland County residents summoned for consideration.

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