The trial for five of the alleged gang members charged in connection with 10 slayings and other crimes began this week with an unusual jury selection process held at the Santa Maria Fairpark, instead of a traditional courtroom.
Potential jurors, approximately 150 to 200 on Monday morning and the same number in the afternoon, heard the names of alleged victims and criminal charges the defendants face in the Santa Maria Superior Court trial expected to last a year.
The case stems from the 2016 arrests and later a grand jury indictment of now 10 defendants allegedly linked to 10 homicides, 14 attempted murders and other crimes for the benefit of the MS-13 criminal gang.
The crimes occurred in the Santa Maria Valley along with Oxnard and Port Hueneme.
For logistical reasons, two trials will occur, with five defendants each.
The process that kicked off this week centered on seating jurors for the first trial, with the expectation hundreds of possible candidates would be needed to sift through those who could fulfill the lengthy jury service.
Monday, and beyond, focused on weeding out those needing to declare a hardship — for financial, medical, vacation or other reasons.
The Fairpark Pavilion will serve as the temporary courtroom for this preliminary phase of jury selection for the trial before Judge John McGregor, with potential jurors sitting at tables, covered in white tablecloths, set up in rows inside the building.
The judge reminded potential jurors that the U.S. grants everyone the right to trial by a jury of their peers, saying the system separates the United States from the rest of the world.
Jury duty is both an honor and an obligation, he added.
‘It is not optional,” he added.
The Fairpark facility allows the judge and court staff to conduct preliminary screening of a large number of potential jurors.
In spelling out specifics, the judge said attorneys expect the trial to last until July 2022.
“We don’t believe it will exceed that time frame,” he said
Those needing to declare a hardship had to fill out a form reviewed by the judge, with most told they could leave and receiving deferrals, with the expectation they will get a summons again within 30, 60, or 90 days for a different, shorter trial.
A large number of people sought hardships, leaving roughly 24 to 30 people in the pool for the trial.
The judge warned jurors that state law limits hardships to serious circumstances, such as intolerable financial situations, prepaid vacation plans, full-time student enrollment, medical disability and more.
On Monday afternoon, the judge rejected a few seeking hardships as they instead were directed to fill out a case questionnaire and told they would be called to return at some future date.
As one woman seemed confused about her release, a court official said she could “Go home. Go to work. Go to the beach.”
“You’re done until you get a new summons,” he told her.
Four screens in the Fountain Pavilion conveyed details about jury duty, such as the $15 payment for non-government employees and 34-cent mileage rate for one-way travel to court.
Other information spelled out the court’s COVID-19 protocols along with planned trial schedule of 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.
The defendants and all attorneys were not present after they agreed to let the judge and court staff handle the process.
Following filling out forms asking dozens of questions, potential jurors who did not receive hardship deferrals will be ordered back to court in the future for detailed questioning by prosecuting and defense attorneys to determine who will make up the jury.
The voir dire process and the trial are expected to occur at the Santa Maria Courts Complex.
While the attorneys and the judge have spent the recent weeks dealing with a number of pre-trial motions, jury selection signals the start of the long-awaited criminal trial for this case..
Opening statements for this trial will begin once the 12 jurors and multiple alternates have been sworn in, most likely sometime in the fall.
A second trial, with five other defendants facing the same allegations, is planned with its starting date set for October.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.