The most anticipated trial of the year—of Paul Miller, the 66-year-old Flagler Beach man accused of murdering his neighbor last year during an argument over Miller’s barking dogs—began Monday with jury selection, which by day’s end had seated an all-white jury of three men and three women, plus three alternates (a woman and two men, one of them black).
The trial may take up to two weeks, with roughly 50 witnesses for the prosecution and a half dozen more for the defense. The jury was not sequestered: its members will go home every evening, though Circuit Judge J. David Walsh cautioned them against speaking about the case at all—including to their spouses—let alone researching it on the Internet.
Miller is charged with second-degree murder, which carries a minimum sentence of 16 years in prison if convicted—what essentially would be a life sentence for Miller, who, according to family members who spoke at his bond hearing last year, is not in god health. He is out on $300,000 bond. He wore a navy blue jacket and tie and sat between his two attorneys, Doug Williams and Carine Jarosz. His wife sat among an audience that amounted to only a handful of people.
The evening of March 14, Miller fired five shots at his neighbor, Dana Mulhall, in the culmination of an argument that had begun when Mulhal complained about Miller’s barking dogs. Mulhall was on his side of a picket fence separating his property from Miller’s, and was unarmed, though Miller says he felt threatened by Mulhall, with whom he’d had issues previously. Mulhall was unarmed. All five shots struck Mulhall, four of them as Mulhall was moving or crawling away from Miller.
Although Williams previously suggested that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law may be invoked, it’s not clear that that will be the defense’s strategy. But an individual’s right to use a firearm in self-defense is likely to play a central part of the defense’s arguments regardless: how and what prospective jurors feel about guns was a recurring theme during Monday’s selection process. A Vietnam veteran who spoke earnestly of what guns do–and of trying to dissuade his two sons from having concealed-carry permits, and forbidding anyone with a gun from entering his home–was among those questioned more than others. He was not chosen.
Jury selection is a laborious and beguiling chess game between the prosecution and the defense as both sides use the process for tactical advantage before opening arguments are laid out. While Miller has the right to a jury of his peers, those “peers” are in fact whittled down to the required six—and three alternates—from a group of two to three dozen.
Walsh himself excused more a half dozen or so individuals before the defense and prosecution picked off one potential juror after another. Neither side has to justify why it eliminates a juror, though each side was limited to 10 such “challenges” for the panel of six, and three additional challenges for the alternates. The defense used all but two of its challenges. The prosecution used fewer.
It was not a surprise, for example, that one prospective juror who emerged as a staunch opponent of guns or a proponent of more gun control, were excused. So was an ex-cop, a retired corporate executive with a penchant for questions, a young man who declared himself incapable of judging others, or a linebacker coach who spoke of an important coming game. And so were several prospective jurors who revealed how much they’d read about the case in newspapers or online. Neither side was looking either for the best informed or the most critical so much as the least objectionable: bland personalities won out over stronger ones.
The prosecution is led by Assistant State Attorney Jacquelyn Roys, with Kayla Hathaway assisting. After Walsh was through making his cutes, the prosecution and the defense were each allowed to make their presentations and questions to the prospects, purposely prompting responses that guided the two sides in their decisions.
The jurors heard about anger, about gun ownership, about hunting, about drinking, or not drinking, about cursing and gruesome pictures (which will be part of the evidence presented). And little by little, based on the reactions they heard from the prospects, the two sides crossed out names and chose others on separate score sheets that they kept to themselves until it was time for the judge to read the names and see where either side stood.
They settled on the nine names with none to spare—and in fact the prosecution and the defense had to agree to take back two names that had earlier been struck, to ensure that there would be a jury seated by day’s end. Otherwise the judge would have had to call up yet another batch of prospects, delaying the process well into Tuesday morning.
The judge asked Miller at the end of the day if he was satisfied with the jury selection. He was. His “yes,” your honor” were the only words he spoke in court all day.
Court reconvenes Tuesday morning at 9 when the jury will hear some instructions and hear opening arguments.