A jury of four men and four women, including two alternates, was seated late this afternoon in the trial of Monserrate Teron, his second in six weeks on charges that the 59-year-old Palm Coast resident and former Army nurse raped his 7-year-old niece at his home in November 2019. The first trial ended with a deadlocked jury of 12.
This time, the jury will consist of six jurors, even though Teron faces two capital charges. His attorney described the change as a matter of “case law.” The maximum penalty for Teron would be life in prison. He has declined plea deals from Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark, who’d offered 20 years in prison. Clark and Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby are trying the case. (Clark had tried it solo six weeks ago.)
Jury selection is all about strategy as the attorneys look for the sort of jurors likeliest to be sympathetic to their side. In sex cases involving children, the focus is on jurors’ experience with children. In the first trial, for or five of the jurors were childless. This time, all but two are. It looked obvious that the defense was eliminating jurors because they had young children, or worked with children: a kindergarten teacher and a preschool teacher were both struck, as was a physical therapist who happened to have three children. The defense also struck out a single man who works in a state prison. Likewise, the prosecution struck out five potential jurors who had no children.
The all-white pool (only three Black jurors were in the original pool of 40) includes a handyperson, two individuals who work in information technology, several retirees (from a middle school profession, from a telecommunication company), a logistics person, an employee in a fitness company. Teron appeared involved, paying attention throughout, as his two attorneys–Harley Brook and Brook O’Sullivan (no elation) of Cape Coral-based Musca Law–made their moves. Brook had led jury selection and most of the first trial. O’Sullivan had not been part of it.
Though for a smaller panel, jury selection took longer than for the first trial, with the jury pool reduced by more than a quarter for various reasons before the defense began asking its questions. The jury was seated almost in early evening, at 5:30 p.m, on the insistence of Circuit Judge Terence Perkins to have the jurors impaneled today. (He went as far as overriding a personal health matter involving O’Sullivan, who had hoped to make it out of the courtroom by 4:30, as had been the expectation earlier in the day. The delay may potentially jeopardize a surgery at the end of the week she had been waiting a year to get. “I don’t want to be a jerk,” the judge told her, “but I want to get this jury seated.” If Teron had any doubts that his attorney was all in, at her own own health’s expense, O’Sullivan erased them as she forgot the clock and focused on her portion of the selection.)
Selection had been a daylong struggle as juror after juror was excused preemptorily, even before the attorneys got to their own allotted eliminations for cause (each side got 10 of those). Jury pools for trials involving sex charges are ordinarily thinned at least a little by the number of jurors who, because of personal experience, are disturbed by the evidence. In this case, no fewer than 10 potential jurors either begged off or were excused preemptorily because of having almost all directly been victims of sexual abuse, as children, as adults or both. It appeared like an unusually high number–or evidence of a still under-reported issue, with devastating consequences.
That devastation was involuntarily on display, hour after hour today. One juror described how as a child in a different state she and others were victimized by a service-station attendant in a small town who managed to molest numerous children and keep them silent, as is often the case. The children hadn’t told until much later. If she were on the jury now, “I would find him guilty,” the juror said, referring to Teron. She broke down in tears as she thought of the events from decades ago–events she hadn’t thought about for years.
So it was for the majority of those who revealed similar childhood traumas. They’d reported for jury duty entirely unaware what kind of case they’d be assigned: felony, misdemeanor, battery, drug offense, traffic. For many of those who landed in Perkins’s pool, the case was a trigger of memories they’d habitually or intentionally repressed, and that were now re-emerging in front of strangers who, one after the other–judge, prosecution, defense–had the right to question them, their focus on the fairness of a trial first, the jurors’ emotions last.
A juror told the judge he and his brother had been molested when they were children. “I personally went into court and I lied to defend my stepfather at the time,” the juror said, a statement that undoubtedly caught the defense’s attention: the defense in Teron’s case had attempted in the first trial to insinuate that, while the victim had been assaulted, she was lying about who had assaulted her, and was doing so to protect someone close to her. The defense tried to put that theory before the jury. The judge did not allow it, ruling against admitting the testimony of an expert witness–a psychologist who would have spoken to the theory that sometimes children lie about their attacker, blaming someone else to protect that attacker. It’s a matter of transference, goes the theory.
The juror had no knowledge about all that (like all but one of the 40 original jurors, he claimed that he had never heard of the Teron case until today). “I don’t want to have to go through this process again, mentally, number one,” he told the court. “Number two, yeah, it already stirred up a lot of things that I had suppressed. I wasn’t prepared for this.”
For another juror, who had been molested from ages 6 to 11 but had not been believed, “I just know what it feels like not to be trusted as a child,” words spoken in one variation or another by one or two other prospective jurors, too. She said she would place greater weigh on the testimony of a child, and would be more likely to believe the victim in the case. She, too, cried. Any juror who would place greater weight one way or the other was excused. Perkins at one point was getting worried that, by one measure, the entire pool could be excused, if jurors were excused any time they had personal or family experience of such traumas.
One juror seemed as capable as any to handle the case: she was the mother of the victim of a murder. The murderer was tried and sentenced to life. But it was too much for the defense to have a juror that knowledgeable of law enforcement and the judiciary. The illusions of a jury of one’s peers are never so sharply illustrated as during jury selection.
Opening arguments are set for 8:30 a.m.
Correction: an earlier version of this article had incorrectly placed the alleged incident in 2020, rather than in November 2019.