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Jury selection in neo-Nazi case offers look at how U.S. justice system works

For the better part of three days, we were shuttled up and down the courthouse stairs, sworn in and sworn to secrecy, the broad panel from which attorneys would pick the jurors who would decide a neo-Nazi's fate.

The retrial of John Ditullio, accused in a 2006 double stabbing, has stirred strong feelings and drawn intense media attention for obvious reasons. Tucked into the Griffin Park neighborhood off State Road 52 and Little Road — not far from the mainstream bustle of supermarkets and strip malls — sat an American Nazi compound whose occupants terrorized a neighbor for having a gay son and a black friend. By all accounts, it was someone from that compound who went on the hate-fueled rampage in March 2006 that scarred Patricia Wells and killed her son's 17-year-old friend, Kristofer King. The gas mask worn by the attacker was hanging in the compound when the SWAT team busted in hours later and arrested Ditullio.

The vicious stabbing was anchored in prejudice. The neo-Nazis next door decided certain kinds of people didn't deserve the same basic rights as everyone else.

The question before the jury pool this week was whether we could shelve our own opinions and biases and give Ditullio every ounce of fairness that was deprived of the victims. It took three days — one of the longest jury selection periods anyone at the New Port Richey courthouse could remember — for that jury to emerge.

Along the way, we were shown videos about the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution; we were peppered with questions about the police and teardrop tattoos and the death penalty; we were instructed on the presumption of innocence that cloaks every defendant stepping into an American courtroom.

We even heard the judge liken Ditullio to a banana, in a manner of speaking. More on that in a minute.

When I got my jury summons a few weeks ago, I immediately recognized the report date as the week of the Ditullio trial. As the Times' Pasco city editor, I have edited most of our coverage of the case, including reports on last year's trial, which ended in a hung jury teetering 10-2 toward acquittal. You would think I'd be dismissed from the jury pool on sight.

Ultimately I was, but only after hours of questioning and discussion designed to handpick an impartial, open-minded jury.

A retired New York state trooper in my panel was happy to be there: He had always wanted to serve on a jury, and now, in his 70s, he had finally been summoned. But many of us were inconvenienced, at best. We were missing work. For many folks — the guy who owns a commercial painting company, the young nursing assistant picking up overtime shifts to work her way through school — that meant lost pay. Unless your employer picks up the tab, jury duty pays only $15 a day ($30 once you reach Day 4).

Some had to scramble to make child care arrangements. One woman was missing time with her grown daughter, who had flown in from Italy. Everyone's life was on hold. Yet nearly everyone stood ready to serve if needed.

It was by chance that on the day Americans remembered the Pearl Harbor attack that drew our country into World War II, and amid the Hanukkah celebrations marking the endurance of the Jewish faith, we found ourselves in the same room as an American Nazi with a hateful swastika inked into his neck. The same country that was founded upon religious freedom, that spent the lifeblood of its men defeating fascism, is also the country that protects Ditullio's right to join a white supremacist sect — and safeguards his right to a fair trial when two people are stabbed next door.

Our calling as potential jurors was to set aside everything but the evidence and give the defendant a fair shake. The system works only because everyday citizens clear their schedules and their minds.

Circuit Judge Michael Andrews told our panel that we wouldn't be sitting in judgment of Ditullio. The jurors are the finders of fact, he explained. Their job is to weigh the testimony and determine what really happened.

So it doesn't matter who is sitting in the defendant's chair.

"It could be a banana sitting in that seat," Andrews said, in one of the more curious legal analogies I've ever heard.

An unexpected smirk flashed across Ditullio's face.

I wouldn't presume to read his mind. But I can't imagine he ever expected to find himself in such company.

Jury selection in neo-Nazi case offers look at how U.S. justice system works 12/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 10, 2010 9:04pm]
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