In every murder trial, attorneys vetting candidates in the laborious hours before a jury can be seated have to detect whether prospective jurors have a bias for or against the defendant. In cases that have been widely reported in media, the bias is usually against the killer.
Not on Monday. Not in Anna Pehota’s case.
Pehota, 76, shot and killed her husband John last September in their Hammock home after she could no longer take psychological abuse from him, as she told an investigator. He’d been ailing for years, she’d taken care of him, but he was in the habit of belittling or ridiculing her, she’d later tell a detective, and that evening before she shot him several times, there’d been an altercation, words exchanged, a broken plate, though he never laid a hand on her. She is charged with second-degree murder.
Today was devoted entirely to jury selection. The actual trial begins Wednesday. It would be close to 5 p.m. before a jury of six and two alternates would be picked. The process, however, was richly revealing of the themes ahead.
Again and again today, prospective jurors who’d heard about the case were struck from the list as they professed sympathy for her, as they suggested that the killing may have been justified, that it may have been “a mercy killing,” that if it had been a case of abuse, “she was the victim,” as one prospective juror put it. And some spoke of having been abused themselves, by their husband, or of having had parents whose situations mirrored similar if not as lethal hurts. Pehota sat through it all, her expression–somewhere between stern and weary–unchanging as she listened with a court-issued hearing aid. But it couldn’t have been bad (or surprising) news for Ray Warren, her court-appointed attorney, who is defending Pehota with Mack Brunton. Juries can be like weather systems: they suggest where the winds blow even before they’re seated, though defense and prosecuting attorneys introduce their own variables.
“I sympathize with the lady,” one prospective juror told Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman, who is presiding over the trial. That prospective juror said she remembered herself what it had been like for her mother to take care of her father. “I’m on her side,” she said of Pehota. “I cannot change much my opinion.”
People don’t necessarily like to serve on juries, least of all in trials that may extend over several days. Prospective jurors can be as clever as lawyers: they may know just what to say to push the button that’ll get them excused. It can be difficult to detect whether they’re being self-serving or sincere. Lawyers have room not to take a chance. But the running theme Monday was the consistency of the replies.
“I might struggle,” one prospective juror said, becoming emotional just at the sight of Pehota, and in sympathy for her.
One person works at the Publix in the Hammock, where Pehota shopped. “You can see the Publix through the trees from her house,” Warren said after the man had been excused from the courtroom.
“I don’t recognize him,” Pehota said. He was not excused.
In some cases, the choice to excuse was immediate. “I come from an abusive family,” a woman said–words that would be heard on several occasions today–“and if she was abused, I think she was the victim and she served her time.” She continued, “if it was proven not to be abuse or mercy killing then I’d be able to listen.” She was excused.
“I had some interaction with Anna,” a fourth prospective juror said, recalling his job at a bank several years ago, when he’d interacted with her a half dozen times. He was not familiar with her husband. He said he was “shocked” by the killing, knowing Pehota as seeming “like a nice sweet lady to me.” He was excused.
“I remember thinking she might have been pushed a little bit too far,” another said of Pehota.
“I thought that she did it, but I thought there was extenuating circumstances,” yet another prospective juror said, though he was clearly confusing Pehota’s case with another woman who had spoken to media about hear fears of losing her house (Pehota never gave interviews after her arrest, which took place shortly after the shooting. She has been at the Flagler County jail since, without bond.) Then the man said: “I think she lost it, from what I heard the man was very ill and somewhat abusive, that’s hearsay.”
Lawyers on both sides were as interested in what jurors remembered about the case as they were about circumstances in their own lives. Those questions could and did get into the personal lives of the panel–the men and women’s marital histories, their history of abuse, their family dynamics, their interactions with cops, all of it relating in one way or another to how they could maintain their impartiality regarding Pehota’s case.
A man spoke of giving his wife time-outs, a method he said he learned after a domestic issue many years ago, when he’d “restrained” his wife, early in their marriage.
Several people spoke of personally experiencing parents aging with ailments, Alzheimer’s, dementia, diabetes, heart problems. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” one said of taking care of her father for five years. “I took a deep breath and remembered what he did for me. It was tough at times, but life is tough.” Another said he’d never allow his parent to be placed in a nursing home, so he was the care-taker. Another spoke of taking care of her mother-in-law for 10 years as “her health got worse and worse,” but “it was the right thing to do.”
“My husband was abusive, I never knew what day it was that he would be OK,” another said.
The informal testimonies were painting the social portrait of any group of people in the middle stations of life when they are parents to their children and to their parents, often under the same roof. But none of the prospective jurors was anywhere near Pehota’s age, or could reflect her specific circumstances: that of a person past his or her mid-70s, and caring for a spouse equally as old, and burdensomely, chronically ill, as John Pehota was.
The prosecution will consist of Assistant State Attorneys Jennifer Dunton and Mark Lewis, who will presumably not be playing the sympathy card except to neutralize it, the better to dismiss it and focus on the act itself, though Pehota took away the prosecutors’ smoking gun: she’s not contesting that it smoked three times as she shot her husband. She didn’t even want a trial. She admitted to the shooting, she wanted to plead guilty and be done with it until her attorney convinced her to reverse course and give a jury its say. Today proved why: if many jurors may have never even heard of the case, Warren will be doing much to foster a sense of sympathy built not only on Pehota’s long history of being allegedly abused by her husband, but on some evidence that her memory has been failing, and that she was not in full control of her capacities the afternoon of the shooting.
Forty original prospective jurors formed the original pool. Their most obvious biases were vetted first. The judge took up the morning, speaking with every one of the prospective jurors individually for several minutes. By the time voir dire began after 3 p.m., quite late by jury-selection standards, they’d been pared down, but only to 28 or 29. (Voir dire is a French phrase that means “to hear it said,” and consists of that portion of jury selection when the attorneys speak directly with individuals as the entire jury pool is seated in the courtroom.) Voir dire is when the pool could be further reduced because of more prosaic conflicts: one candidate had a planned trip to the northeast that began tonight, another was going to visit a grandchild, a third had trouble with English and medical terms, one man was the victim of a violent assault, when a men pulled a gun on him, so he had a few contacts with law enforcement and the state attorney’s office. The charges were dropped. The prosecution wanted to know if he thought he’d been treated fairly. “I thought more should have been done, and it wasn’t, so I took it for what it was,” the man said.