10/27/04 — Judge tries to speed up jury selection

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Judge tries to speed up jury selection

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on October 27, 2004 2:03 PM

After nine days of selecting a jury in the murder trial of Eric Glenn Lane and only seven jurors having been picked, the judge decided the process was moving too slowly.

Judge D. Jack Hooks of Whiteville abandoned the one-juror-at-a-time method for questions on the death penalty and pretrial publicity and filled the five remaining seats with panelists.

The defense objected to the new method.

"We have moved quite quickly," defense lawyer Edwin L. West III of Wilmington said. "This is a serious case. I have real concerns" about the death penalty.

But Hooks said he could sort out any problem jurors.

The state then questioned the new panelists at the end of the day's session.

After the five newcomers were questioned by the state, West asked about the change. Hooks said it was at the court's discretion and added, "I expect you to conduct your questions the same way you have."

One of the five newcomers was excused, because he had said that he believed in "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The panelist also said he would automatically vote for the death penalty without considering the facts. He was replaced by another man.

Earlier, the defense and state had clashed over the questioning of jurors.

When Hooks denied a defense challenge for cause to excuse one juror, the judge reminded the defense that "I don't want questions turning into jury arguments."

District Attorney Branny Vickory declined comment about the issue but did predict that it would flare up again.

The 33-year-old Lane is being tried for the murder of 5-year-old Precious Ebony Whitfield on May 17, 2002. The little girl was visiting family friends a few doors from Lane's home on Brandywine Drive in Patetown. She was living with her mother on Cross Cut Place in Saulston.

If Lane is convicted of first-degree murder, then the same jury would determine his sentence -- life in prison without the possibility of parole or death.

Before the five new jurors were questioned, the state finished interviewing the last of six prospective jurors Tuesday, and the defense challenged two men for cause.

One man said, "I don't believe in a slap on the wrist for someone who commits murder." Although he said he could be fair, he believed that death was the appropriate punishment for someone convicted of first-degree murder.

The other, a state transportation worker, said he remembered cleaning up a memorial of flowers, angels, wreaths, notes and teddy bears at the Airport Road bridge over Nahunta Creek, where the girl's body was found. He said he had a strong belief in the death penalty.

When West challenged the two, he argued that he had to use peremptory challenges on prospective jurors who had read about a possible confession. He then said, "I'm not trying to slow things down. I'm not trying to be difficult."

Hooks admitted that the selection process was difficult, but he denied both challenges at the time.

After the defense questioned the five jurors together, West again challenged the first man. The juror said he went to church with the lead investigator, Wayne County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Mike Kabler, and would believe what he said. This time Hooks upheld the challenge for cause.

The defense also challenged for cause the president of a large manufacturing company because of his concern about his business. The judge denied the challenge.

The defense then used three peremptory challenges to excuse the second man, the company president and another man.

The search for five more jurors resumed this morning. Two to four alternate jurors also will be needed.