published Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Jury screening begins in Jesse Mathews' trial

Jesse Mathews is escorted into court in this file photo.
Jesse Mathews is escorted into court in this file photo.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Jesse Ray Mathews is one step closer to his death penalty trial.

Mathews appeared in the Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Courthouse on Wednesday dressed in a collared, forest-green long-sleeve shirt with a patterned tie and tan slacks. It was the first non-jail or hospital attire he's worn in public since his arrest on April 2, 2011, accused of killing Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin during the botched robbery of a money store on Brainerd Road.

Sixty-eight potential jurors from Davidson County met Wednesday in the Nashville courthouse to fill out a form with 201 questions. Mathews' attorneys, Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss, requested an out-of-town jury to avoid tainted opinions in the case, which has received a high level of media coverage in Chattanooga.

The trial for Mathews, 27, is scheduled to start on Jan. 22, 2013.

In the Davidson County courthouse, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman told the first batch of what will likely be hundreds of potential jurors that the actual selection will take place in Nashville. The trial, which will take place in Hamilton County, is estimated to take two weeks, he said, and jurors will be sequestered during its run.

The hearing Wednesday was to identify potential jurors who had justifiable reasons to be excused from service and eliminate them from the pool before the estimated weeklong jury selection process begins in January.

Davis said the questionnaire will help speed jury selection because it gives both sides information that they won't have to ask about in court. Instead, they can focus on details of other questions when talking with prospective jurors in January, he said.

Six hundred jurors were called for the pool and 36 were excused, mostly for medical reasons, before appearing in court. On total of 172 potentials arrived Wednesday morning and 43 were excused for reasons allowed by the judge, leaving 129 to return in January.

During a courtroom break, Davis said the January jury selection will involve the questioning of individual jurors, who'll then be assigned a date and time to be reviewed by the lawyers.

Typically, 14 total jurors are selected for a felony trial; 12 will render a verdict with two remaining as alternates in case another juror cannot finish service.

Possible Delay

But plans for a January trial could be put on hold if developments in federal court remain unresolved.

Davis has asked Steelman to halt preparations for the trial while he tries to interview federal prosecutor Steve Neff. If Mathews is found guilty, Davis hopes to use information from the Neff interview as mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial.

But Neff's boss, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian, denied Davis' request, citing "sovereign immunity," a legal concept that precludes federal prosecutors from being called as witnesses in state court.

On Oct. 22, Davis filed a complaint asking a federal judge to rule whether Neff can be interviewed.

Davis and Hoss want Neff's testimony because he prosecuted cases against Jesse's mother Kathleen, father Ray and sister Rachel. All three are appealing long sentences they received for their part in aiding Jesse Mathews while he was a fugitive from a Colorado halfway house for a separate armed robbery.

During Kathleen's sentencing hearing and in court documents, Neff calls her manipulative and evil and said she had a heavy influence on her son. Jesse's attorneys want to offer that description to a jury as proof that she influences her son.

Killian has declined to comment to the media about the proceedings.

But an attorney for the government told Steelman that, if the federal ruling is not in their favor, they would appeal the decision. Davis said also he would appeal the decision.

With both sides seemingly unwilling to budge, the complaint could rise to the U.S. Supreme Court, taking up to a year or more.

But in the most recent hearing, Steelman told Davis he would continue preparing for the trial and review what happens in the federal court as it developed.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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