BLOOMINGTON - The third day of jury selection in the Maurice LaGrone Jr. murder trial brought three more jurors to the panel and continued probing of where jury pool members stand on the death penalty.
The three jurors accepted Thursday include a worker from Mitsubishi Motors, a retired school administrator and a technical analyst from State Farm Insurance Co. They join an employee of State Farm Bank who was accepted Wednesday.
LaGrone, 30, and his former girlfriend Amanda Hamm, 29, are charged with nine counts of first-degree murder, but her trial remains unscheduled. The allegations stem from the September 2003 drowning deaths of Hamm's three children at Clinton Lake.
A total of 16 people have been questioned extensively by DeWitt County Judge Stephen Peters and lawyers for the prosecution and defense.
The jury panel so far is comprised of two men and two women. One of the male jurors is black, a factor the defense said is important because LaGrone is black.
Potential jurors' thoughts on the death penalty have been the topic of many questions from the judge and attorneys.
One jury candidate was excused Thursday after he said it was unlikely he could agree to a death sentence for LaGrone if it became an option during the penalty phase of the trial.
"I'm a God-fearing person. I believe the only way you should die is by his hand. I don't think we have a right to put anybody to death," the man said during questioning from the judge.
Special prosecutor Ed Parkinson said after the day's proceedings that he was surprised by the lack of opinions in general on the death penalty among potential jurors. They seemed to be fairly neutral overall on the idea.
"There's only been one in 16 potential jurors (who expressed an opinion strong enough to remove him from the jury pool). I was expecting more strong opinions," said Parkinson.
Most potential jurors said that while they would not look forward to a vote on the death penalty, they would be willing to consider it if chosen to serve on the panel.
Another woman questioned by defense attorney Jeff Justice said: "I believe the death penalty should not be used unless the case is severe enough. As a human being, deciding if someone is going to die would be very difficult to do."
LaGrone was behind the wheel of Hamm's car when it went into the lake on Sept. 2, 2003, with Christopher, 6, Austin Brown, 3 and Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months in the back seat. Both adults were out of the car when rescue workers arrived after Hamm called 911.
Both say it was an accident and have pleaded innocent to the charges.
The state is seeking the death penalty as a possible punishment if LaGrone and Hamm are convicted.
Parents with young children who are part of the jury pool for the murder case have expressed the connection they feel between the Hamm children and their own. Defense attorneys have asked several follow-up questions to determine the level of discomfort they may feel with the case.
"It's one of those things that when you read it it's hard to comprehend. It makes you swallow hard," one father of three children told the judge.n;
Peters opens his 40-minute interview of potential jurors with an estimate that the trial could take three to four weeks of a juror's time.
After jury selection is complete, the trial will return to DeWitt County for about a week of pretrial hearings without the jury. When the case returns to Bloomington, testimony will begin from an estimated 100 witnesses for the state and defense.
Jury selection continues today.
The trial was moved out of DeWitt County because of concerns the defense expressed about the effect of pretrial publicity on the jury pool.