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Jury selection begins in Brett Seacat’s murder trial in Kingman

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, May 20, 2013, at 10:34 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 11, 2013, at 7:42 a.m.

— Jury selection resumes Tuesday morning in the first-degree murder trial of Brett Seacat, a former law enforcement officer and police instructor accused of killing his wife and setting fire to the couple’s Kingman home more than two years ago.

Thirty-one people – more than half needed to begin the trial – were added to a pool of prospective jurors Monday during the first two rounds of selection.

Final juror selection and opening statements may start Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning if enough people are qualified for the jury pool by midweek, said Kingman County District Court Judge Larry Solomon, who is presiding over the case. Fifty are needed for the jury pool; 12 jurors and three alternates will be chosen from that pool.

Seacat faces first-degree murder charges in the April 2011 shooting death of his wife, 34-year-old Vashti Seacat, a Cox Communications employee who had filed for divorce 16 days before her death. Investigators found her burned body beside a melted gas container on the charred remains of her bed. A .44-caliber pistol lay under her body.

Brett Seacat’s defense attorneys have suggested Vashti Seacat ignited the fire that engulfed the home and committed suicide; whether her death was a homicide could not be determined during an autopsy.

At the time of Vashti Seacat’s death, her husband was an instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center and still lived in the home. Brett Seacat is also a former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy.

His trial has been continued multiple times since April 2012, its original start date. He remains in Kingman County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond.

The trial is expected to last two or three weeks, Solomon said Monday. The state has subpoenaed more than 100 witnesses, he said.

It is being held in Kingman – the accused’s hometown – at the request of Brett Seacat. The 37-year-old also is charged with a single count of aggravated arson and two counts of aggravated child endangerment for allegedly setting fire to the house while the Seacats’ two sons – then ages 2 and 4 – slept down the hall from their mother’s room.

He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years if convicted on the murder charge.

Potential jurors questioned

Around 8:30 a.m. Monday, Seacat entered the courtroom, dressed in a black suit, tie and pastel-hued dress shirt. He smiled briefly before sitting to review documents with his attorneys, Roger Falk and Val Wachtel.

Within minutes, the first panel of prospective jurors filed into the third-floor courtroom of the historic Kingman County Courthouse to be questioned about their lives, experiences and whether they could serve fairly and impartially in a trial that’s been a talking point across the county for months.

Solomon issued a robust “good morning” as the proceedings began. When introduced to potential jurors, Seacat nodded his head and said, “Hello.”

After reminding them of Seacat’s presumed innocence and both sides’ right to a fair trial, Solomon asked jurors to share any “extraordinary or compelling personal hardships” they may experience if chosen to serve on Seacat’s jury. He also requested those with a personal interest in or first-hand knowledge of the case to ask themselves whether they could “put aside your prior knowledge and opinions … and hear the case as a blank slate.”

“(If) you can be fair and impartial, then you are qualified to sit on this case,” Solomon told those sitting in the jury box.

By 9:30 a.m., the judge had excused the first prospective juror of the morning, a man who said medical issues would hinder his service. About 30 minutes later, another man was dismissed after he said it was unlikely he could act as a fair and impartial juror.

“I read your questionnaire, and I think you walked into this courtroom with an opinion,” Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley, one of four prosecutors present, said to the man.

“Yes,” he replied.

Later she asked: “Can you be a fair and impartial juror?”

“Probably not,” he answered.

Questioning of the day’s second panel, which began at 1 p.m., mirrored earlier proceedings. At times, laughter broke out as attorneys spoke one-on-one with each person summoned. When asked whether they knew anyone else sitting on the jury panel, several prospective jurors raised their hands.

Despite widespread interest in the case, the courtroom’s gallery remained bare, except for a few reporters taking notes and law enforcement officers sitting on the perimeter of the room in folding chairs. Rows reserved for the families of Seacat and those of his wife were mostly empty.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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