Jury selection begins in first prison murder trial
By Paul Nielsen
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
MANTEO — Jury selection began Monday in Dare County for the trial of the first of four prison inmates accused of slaying four prison workers during a failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution nearly two years ago.
Mikel Brady is on trial for four counts of first-degree murder and other associated charges in the state’s deadliest prison escape attempt.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Brady and the three other inmates accused in the murders: Wisezah Buckman, Seth Frazier and Jonathan Monk. Buckman will be tried in March. Trial dates for Frazier and Monk have not been set.
Brady’s trial is being held in Dare County Superior Court in Manteo after Brady’s attorneys were successful in winning a change of venue from Pasquotank County because of publicity surrounding the prison workers’ deaths.
Killed in the Oct. 12, 2017 escape attempt were Correction Enterprises Manager Veronica “Ronnie” Darden; corrections officers Justin Smith and Wendy Shannon; and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe.
Smith’s mother, along with about a dozen family members of the victims, attended part of Monday’s proceedings.
A potential pool of 600 jurors have been summoned for the trial and almost 200 arrived Monday morning, entering the courthouse under a blanket of heavy security. A second group of around 200 jurors were originally told to appear Monday afternoon but were told to arrive at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning as the selection process slowed.
Once the 12-person jury and alternates are seated a trial that could last up to two weeks will get underway.
District Attorney Andrew Womble told the court Monday that the prosecution has a potential witness list of 73 people. He also told jurors they could be subject to viewing graphic crime scene photos.
Prosecutors interviewed almost 20 prospective jurors, eliminating several from serving on the panel. After exhausting their objections, six women and three men remained as possible members of the jury. Three other prospective jurors were added but not interviewed after prosecutors concluded their phase of the juror interview process.
The defense is expected to begin its interviews of the prospective jurors this morning.
Brady arrived in the court with shackles around his waist and hands. He was surrounded by six officers from the N.C. Department of Public Safety, two of whom sat directly behind him during proceedings.
Brady routinely glanced back at the jury pool when prospective jurors were called for interviews and he was given a pad and pen at one point during the proceedings.
Several jurors were dismissed after stating that they had already formed an opinion on the case or that they were opposed to the death penalty.
If found guilty, Brady will either be sentenced to death or receive life without parole. Womble told prospective jurors that a first-degree murder charge “is as serious as it gets in our state.”
“I don’t agree with the death penalty,” one prospective juror said.
Womble then asked the prospective juror if they would always vote for life without parole.
“Yes,” the prospective juror said.
Another prospective juror said they wouldn’t want to pass judgment in a death penalty case while another said, “I don’t know if I want that (death penalty) on my conscience.”
Several other jurors told prosecutors that they had formed an opinion in the case but said they could set aside those opinions and render a decision based on the facts that will be presented at trial.
Prior to jury selection, defense attorney Jackson Warmack asked Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett to ban members of the media from using television cameras, still cameras and other recording devices in the courtroom, saying the proceedings could turn into a media circus that could “deprive our client (Brady) a fair trial.”
Womble argued for an open courtroom for citizens and the community.
Tillett agreed to allow one media pool television camera and a single pool still camera in the courtroom during the proceedings. The judge also told the defense and prosecutors to refrain from talking to the media until the trial is concluded.
At the time of the murders, Brady was serving a 24-year prison sentence for the attempted first-degree murder of a state trooper in Durham County.
Buckman was serving a sentence for second-degree murder conviction in Mecklenburg County. Monk was in prison serving a sentence for attempted first-degree murder in Cumberland County. Frazier was serving a sentence for first-degree burglary in Onslow County.