BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – Jury selection began on February 2 in Benton County circuit court in the third capital murder trial for Mauricio Torres, and Judge Brad Karren has set aside a significant amount of time to complete the voir dire process.
Torres has already been convicted twice for the abuse and killing of his six-year-old son, Isaiah Torres, during a weekend camping trip in 2015. The first was overturned on a sentencing technicality, and the second was declared a mistrial when Torres’ stepson jumped out of the witness stand and attempted to attack him during sentencing.
No mention of those previous trials was made to the approximately 60 members of the potential jury pool that assembled in the Division One courthouse in downtown Bentonville on Thursday. Judge Karren commended those individuals for braving the elements and the road conditions to serve their civic duty as possible jurors.
The day’s proceedings began with a roll call of all potential jurors listed, with only a handful absent. Karren read them a statement of the case agreed upon by both sides and he noted the “extreme indifference to the value of human life” demonstrated by Torres’ alleged crimes.
A 2015 Arkansas Department of Human Services report confirmed the details of Isaiah Torres’ abuse, which included cuts, bruises, sexual penetration, abuse with a deadly weapon and extreme or repeated cruelty before his death. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Torres.
Judge Karren noted that Torres’ case has received significant media attention, and he reminded the pool that if selected, they would judge the case solely on the testimony they heard in court. The group was then sworn in collectively, and individuals were provided with a date and time to return to court for the official jury selection process, which is also known as voir dire.
Potential jurors are currently set to return in staggered groups of three to be questioned through the morning of February 10. The first trio returned at 1 p.m. on February 2.
Attorneys for both sides are allotted time to speak to the potential jurors, inform them about their potential duties, and question them to determine if they are fit to serve. This includes inquiries about their potential to hand down a sentence as determined by the letter of the law if that is what the evidence dictates.
Lead prosecutor Nathan Smith began and he utilized a PowerPoint presentation displayed on a large flat screen monitor. Judge Karren previously noted that the case had seen substantial media attention, so Smith began by making a relevant point as he displayed a photograph of the infamous “Dewey defeats Truman” newspaper headline from 1948, when the Chicago Daily Tribune prematurely and incorrectly called the result of a Presidential election.
Smith then discussed the defendant’s presumption of innocence and the burden of proof held by the state. He then demonstrated that by showing the potential jurors an empty glass as he explained that it was the prosecution’s job to fill that glass with evidence that would show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
He added that everyone brings their own personal beliefs with them to the jury box, and that they must do their best to set those aside completely and judge the facts of the case based solely on testimony and evidence. Smith also explained that they would hear about Cathy Torres, but that this case would only pertain to the actions of Mauricio.
He proceeded to explain the specific elements of the charge of capital murder, explaining that it does not require premeditation. The State of Arkansas has a list of conditions that can result in such a charge, and one of those is “knowingly causing the death of a child.”
He continued by noting that in order for the jury to return a sentence of death, the prosecution needs to prove guilt as well as check three other boxes during trial: prove that there were one or more aggravating circumstances, show that those aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating ones and make clear that those aggravating circumstances justify a death sentence.
Smith explained that if a single juror finds that the state failed on any of those three points, the only sentence that can be returned following a guilty verdict is life in prison without the possibility of parole. Attorneys for Torres later mentioned that they may petition the court to allow the jury to consider lesser included charges as an alternative.
Each potential juror was asked about their personal ability to hand down a death sentence if that is what the evidence requires. Smith had each person rate that on a 1-100 scale both before and after he explained the nuances of sentencing. Defense attorneys later asked the same question on a 1-10 scale.
In two afternoon sessions, defense attorneys Jeff Rosenzweig and Bill James each took a turn querying the jury pool members. In contrast to the state’s PowerPoint presentation, the defense communicated to potential jurors with a much more low-tech approach, using dog-eared poster board displays on a creaky easel.
The defense attorneys touched on many of the same points, including the state’s burden of proof, and noted that this particular point is not different because the victim was a six-year-old child. They also warned the potential jurors that they would inevitably see some horrible images during the trial.
Rosenzweig touched on an array of other topics, from race to immigration to child abuse. He noted that his client is not a U.S. citizen, but that he is in the country legally from El Salvador. He also asked each potential juror about their thoughts on disciplining children using physical methods.
He also spent ample time discussing the subject of culpability, and he noted that it means that a defendant must be aware that his conduct can result in whatever crime is charged–capital murder, in this case.
“You don’t want to punish people for honest mistakes,” he said. At the conclusion of the first session, Judge Karren provided “strike sheets” to the attorneys that they can use to challenge and eliminate potential jurors from the pool.
He then thanked the citizens for returning and for listening to the attorneys for approximately two hours.
“It’s like applying for a job that nobody wants,” he said of the process. The judge and all the attorneys then gathered to discuss exactly what the defense is and is not allowed to say to the jury pool members.
Smith objected to a line on one of the defense visual aids that read “Life is presumed!” He added that the phrasing there is not something actually contained within the state statute. Conversely, defense attorneys felt that it was “a fair statement of the law.”
The discussion went so far as the defense team offering to “excise the exclamation mark” from the display. Judge Karren ultimately granted the prosecution’s motion on the grounds that the statement could be “confusing and misleading to the jury.”
The afternoon’s second session proceeded in a manner nearly identical to the first, with James stepping in to handle the defense’s address to the potential jurors. Smith’s PowerPoint data was admitted into the record and the court adjourned for the day shortly after 5 p.m.
Jury selection was scheduled to continue back in Judge Karren’s Division 2 courtroom at 8:30 a.m. on February 3.