Judge Dismisses 9 Jurors From Pool Who Will Hear Casper Businessman’s Sex Assault Trial
A judge agreed with defense attorneys for Tony Cercy who argued some potential jurors were too biased to be impaneled for his sex assault trial scheduled to begin Monday.
Natrona County District Court Judge Daniel Forgey on Friday dismissed nine of those jurors, and followed his decision by severely scolding Cercy's lead defense attorney.
Forgey also said he will hold a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Monday -- an hour before jury selection begins -- on a motion to change the venue, or location, of the widely publicized trial of a prominent Casper businessman.
Cercy's attorneys filed a lengthy change-of-venue motion shortly before the hearing began at 3:30 p.m. Friday, followed by a response by District Attorney Mike Blonigen. Copies of the motions were not available because the hearing ended 40 minutes after the Townsend Justice Center closed.
Cercy is charged with one count of first-degree sexual assault (rape), one count of second-degree and one count of third degree sexual assault on a 20-year-old woman at Alcova Lake in June. If convicted on all counts, he faces between seven and 85 years of imprisonment.
Most of Friday afternoon's hearing was devoted to the request by Cercy's attorneys Pamela Mackey and Jeffrey Pagliuca that 34 jurors indicated on pre-trial questionnaires that they disliked Cercy or believed he was guilty of sexual assaulting a 20-year-old woman in June, and that they could not set aside their opinions to be fair and impartial.
Mackey and Pagliuca argued pre-trial publicity and personal knowledge of individuals tainted the jury pool.
The attorneys and Forgey referred to the jurors by their jury pool numbers.
The questionnaire, approved by Forgey, asked jurors to respond -- in writing and under oath -- about their personal lives, whether they had been victims of crimes including sexual assault, and what they've heard about Cercy and their opinions of him. "The question is whether you can decide the facts in this case based only on the evidence presented in court, the law as given to you by the Court and your common sense."
However, Blonigen questioned whether Forgey even had the authority to dismiss jurors before the trial began. He said many of the responses on the questionnaires had conflicting answers, and were equivocal or vague. Some jurors also wrote they could set their opinions aside and fairly hear the evidence.
Blonigen cited the Enron trial in which those jurors could fairly hear the case even though they lost money in that company's collapse.
Blonigen also said he believed the purpose of the questionnaires was to serve as a starting point for interviewing the jurors.
Forgey said he couldn't dismiss potential jurors just because they read or heard something or knew somebody who knew Cercy before calling a recess to review the questionnaires.
After the recess, Forgey said one of the purposes of the questionnaires was to save time during the jury selection.
He used what he called a "risk-benefit" analysis to determine what would be gained if very biased jurors were called only to be dismissed. He also said he didn't see any clear authority for his decision.
Forgey then read the numbers of the nine jurors he would dismiss.
He followed the announcement with how the jurors will be seated in his courtroom on the first floor of the Townsend Justice Center.
But Mackey wouldn't give up.
She again told Forgey that her team wanted jurors who might be biased against Cercy to be identified and dismissed. She also pushed for having prospective jurors questioned individually so other jurors could not hear their answers.
Mackey also indicated the jury selection may take more than a day.
Forgey said he was puzzled by her comments, and responded that not all those she wondered about would be called for the voir dire.
Then the judge -- who speaks with a nearly emotionless, quiet and deliberative tone -- ripped into Mackey.
"We have been proceeding on this case for many, many months," Forgey said. "You asked for the time and I gave you the time."
He reminded Mackey that she said seating the jury may take more than a day, adding most trials in Natrona County District Court have a jury seated before noon.
"This is boggling my mind," Forgey said.
Mackey didn't quit.
She said she's seen only one other case in her 30 years as a trial lawyer where a potential jury exhibited such bias, and that one time resulted in a change of venue.
Forgey didn't quit, either.
He reminded her that if potential jurors may be embarrassed about talking about a sensitive issue, such as a personal experience with sexual assault, they and the attorneys can talk with him privately.
Both sides also have the right to challenge jurors and ask for their dismissal, Forgey said.
He respects the right of both sides to have a fair trial, and reminded them they have six days to present their evidence and then turn the case over to the jury.
"We need to be efficient with our time," Forgey said.