WARSAW — Can an impartial jury be selected within Kosciusko County to hear the case against its Sheriff C. Aaron Rovenstine?
This question was the purpose of a test jury selection Friday, Nov. 4. The unique action saw 40 county residents called for jury duty and answering questions from prosecution and defense. No one was dismissed, no one was seated. Elkhart Superior Court 1 Judge Evan S. Roberts, special judge, took the matter under advisement.
Following three hours of questioning, E. Nelson Chipman, Jr., special prosecutor, pointed out in the first panel 30 percent of the prospective jurors would not be impartial, 20-25 percent in the second panel of 15; and none in the third panel of 12. “I think it calls for the calling of more (jurors) than the usual,” Chipman stated, noting having jurors outside the county who have not heard about the case would make it easier, but still hold the hearing in Kosciusko County.
Jennifer Lukemeyer, co-counsel for Rovenstine, pointed out it is standard to find jurors who have formed opinions, noting to her count six individuals had formed opinions they said could not be changed. “We don’t know for which side. But I don’t think that supports a change of venue,” she stated. She argued her client had the right to have his case heard in the county with his peers and in the county of the alleged crime.
During the jury voir dire the questions were simple from Roberts, the prosecution and defense. Roberts, who read the charges against Rovenstine, issued the standard rules and instructions given to any prospective juror. He noted there were “specific reasons why they were here today.” He stated there were questions with decisions on certain matters that can be decided (by them) and questions about knowledge of the parties involved, biases and prejudices persons may have (to be answered). “We not asking you to serve as jurors in this case. Your role today is to answer all questions fully and frankly,” stated Roberts.
Additionally Roberts stated the decision made by the court will be based on answers given and important to the parties to make a well reasoned decision the case.
Roberts asked if any person believed they could not serve or know any one else on the jury panel. Three persons knew several others who had been called to serve, and approximately 12 responded they either had relatives involved in law enforcement, had been convicted of a felony, or was possibly a former classmate.
While no prospective juror knew the judge, prosecutors or two of the three defense attorneys. One person indicated knowing defense attorney Mike Miner through the Republican party. However the responses were different when Roberts asked who knew the defendant and if they were aware of why they were here. Practically all prospective jurors raised their hands.
Individually questioning each prospective juror, Roberts heard the majority only knew him as the county sheriff, but had no personal knowledge. Several stated they had affiliation with the sheriff in other matters: church, committees, or family knowledge. Regarding the reason for their presence, the response was similar: they heard about the case through media accounts and through social media.
Chipman explained the role of a special prosecutor and how it came about in this case. He also noted Indiana has two ways of filing criminal cases: directly or through a grand jury. After pointing out 99 percent of criminal cases are filed directly, those cases that are complicated, have a great social impact or are a big case and of great importance to the residence, are taken through a grand jury. “We are here to access the exposure folks have had.”
During the actual questioning of the prospective jurors Chipman and Tammy Napier, chief deputy prosecuting attorney, Lukemeyer and James Voyles took turns questioning each of the three panels.
Questions focused on the means of hearing about the case, if there were discussions, if opinions were formed, could they restrict their judgement to what was presented in the courtroom, could they be impartial and if they were a defendant would they want someone like their self on the jury.
Various media outlets and social media were the prominent responses about hearing the case, with a few noting hearing about the case by friends or family. A few stated they initially read about the charges, but had forgotten about it. Some noted they do not read or watch television, nor use any form of social media.
Jurors were also asked if he/she voted for the sheriff. A few said no, with one female prospective juror noting she only votes for the president, not local officials. Another stated he didn’t know if he ever voted for Rovenstine, because he voted a straight party ticket. “I’m assuming he’s a Republican, I don’t really know,” the juror stated.
A few indicated they felt the opinions they had formed could not be changed. Some commented they had never heard of the case until that day. One juror stated because of his religious beliefs he could not judge another individual. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to be a juror,” several stated, noting the evidence presented in court would not change his/her mind.
“You have to look inside your heart and be honest,” Voyles stated and frequently expressed appreciation for the honesty of the prospective jurors.