A jury of five men and eight women was picked to hear an anti-gay assault case after attorneys on both sides sifted through a pool of 60 potential jurors – dismissing a lesbian as well as a man who called homosexuality “disgusting.”
The jury was selected on Monday during the first day of the trial for Martin Blackwell (top photo), the 48-year-old man who was charged with pouring boiling water on two gay men – one of them the son of his then girlfriend – while they slept. The attack took place Feb. 12 in a College Park apartment.
The case moved to trial after Blackwell withdrew his guilty plea when Fulton Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk (third photo) sentenced him to serve 30 years of a 40-year sentence in prison. Blackwell quickly rejected the plea during a court hearing on Thursday.
On Monday, Blackwell’s attorneys and prosecutors culled through the pool of potential jurors. Questions about LGBT issues, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, domestic battery and alcoholism dominated the day-long screening of jurors as attorneys tried to filter out people who had strong views – negatively or positively – about LGBT issues.
The panel includes a commercial insurance underwriter, forensic accountant, systems analyst for the IRS, Coke employee, Target stock person, the owner of a fitness franchise, flight attendant, part-time accountant and Verizon customer service analyst. Several of the jurors live in north Fulton, including Alpharetta, Milton and Roswell.
Before prospective jurors were interviewed, Deputy District Attorney Fani Willis (second photo) questioned whether media coverage of the case and how the issue of sexual orientation might impact the jurors.
“The issue of homosexuality is sensitive. I didn’t know if you wanted to deal that with individual questions,” Willis told Newkirk. “Homosexuality is still a very divisive issue in our community. I want to share it with the court so you know why I have so much concern.”
“We want people to be candid about their beliefs but they might be too strong for the jury,” she added.
Newkirk said the issues could be addressed with questions during jury selection. And it was – extensively.
Two-thirds of the prospective jurors – some 40 people – said they had relatives or close friends who are gay. None agreed that the law shouldn’t protect LGBT people, and just one said a negative experience with gay people would impact her ability to be fair during a trial.
Five others agreed that they held strong religious beliefs about homosexuality, though none said adults should be published for being gay. Some 11 prospective jurors said because of the nature of the charges – Blackwell faces eight counts of aggravated battery and two counts of aggravated assault – the sexual orientation of the victims made them feel that they couldn’t be impartial. That prompted a warning from Newkirk.
“You are not expected to like these charges,” he said.
'I still see homosexuality as a sin'
Then attorneys on both sides questioned the potential jurors in groups of six – pulling aside each person individually – for a sometimes intrusive and personal probing of their relationships, education, criminal history and views on religion and LGBT issues.
One man, a teacher and coach at the Marist School, said he’s struggled with the issue of same-sex marriage. His Presbyterian Church in Roswell recently debated allowing the sanctuary to be used for gay marriages.
“I have struggled greatly with that idea,” he said. “I’ve struggled with it socially, spiritually. I still see homosexuality as a sin. I don’t think it causes me to hate homosexuals. I have friends and acquaintances that are such. But that is still something that I am conflicted over, to be quite honest with you.”
When Willis asked if gay men should be punished with violence, there was a long pause as the man struggled to answer.
“There is nothing wrong legally with two adults sharing a bed,” Newkirk interjected. “In light of that, do you think you can start off a level playing field for both parties?”
The man again hesitated to answer.
“I think based on where I stand in knowing the details, or this issue of homosexuality has already been brought up, it’s going to be difficult for me,” the man said.
Newkirk then excused him from serving on the jury.
A paraprofessional at a charter school in south Fulton was the only prospective juror to come out as a lesbian during the questioning. When asked if she knows anyone who is gay, she responded, “my ex partner.” The women share custody of two children.
“Would that prevent you from being fair and impartial for hearing the evidence,” Assistant District Attorney Franklin Engram asked.
“I think it would,” she said.
Newkirk dismissed her from the juror pool.
One man, who repeatedly raised objections to LGBT issues during initial questioning, was excused from jury duty when he expressed contempt for gay people.
“I do not believe in judging anybody but in this case, where I understand there is a crime against someone who is homosexual, which I find in my hearts disgusting. I can’t judge anyone in that instance,” he said.
A Mormon and financial planner for Cox Enterprises told the court that his gay brother – after years of harassment from friends and family – committed suicide in 2014. He said he would “try his best” to be impartial during the trial, but admitted that it would be difficult to do so.
“My religious convictions are that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said.
“Did you disagree with your brother’s lifestyle,” Engram asked.
“No sir, it has more to with social contracts. How he chose to live his lifestyle I did not disapprove of. I did not disown him,” he said.
But after witnessing the struggles that his brother experienced over his sexual orientation, the man admitted that could influence him during the course of the trial.
“He suffered from members of the family not accepting his lifestyle, friends that disowned him and in the community in which he lived, there are all kinds of different examples of mistreatment based on who he was and his lifestyle,” he said.
“To see people treated that way in any shape of form kind of upsets me,” the man added.
He was not selected for the jury.
Most of the people picked for the jury said they did not have strong feelings about LGBT issues. One, a Coke employee, said she plays fantasy football with two lesbians. A forensic accountant said that she has gay friends but that wouldn’t impact her ability to fairly judge the trial.
“You are entitled to whatever sexual orientation you have,” said a commercial insurance underwriter selected for the panel.
A semi-retired contract programmer told attorneys that his nephew is gay and two friends in his weekly trivia game are also gay.
“The two friends I play trivia with I don’t think of as gay or not gay. We have a few drinks and play trivia,” he said. “They are just friends. They are normal people. There are good people and bad people in both camps I guess you would call it.”
‘I’m not getting proper counsel’
Ahead of the jury screening, Blackwell complained about “inadequate counsel,” echoing concerns he aired during a hearing last week. He refused to sign a document outlining his not guilty plea after several requests from Newkirk.
“I’m not getting proper counsel,” Blackwell told the judge.
Newkirk defended the public defenders representing Blackwell, including attorney Monique Walker.
“Ms. Walker has been practicing law in my court of probably over eight years,” Newkirk told Blackwell. “Based on what I know right now, we are going to go forward.”
Blackwell continued to resist signing the document and pushed for new attorneys to be appointed to his case.
“If you get to the jury in here, then I won’t be able to get counsel,” Blackwell said.
“I am not going to appoint you another attorney. You had plenty of time since February to hire anybody you want to,” Newkirk said.
The trial continued on Tuesday.