All prospective jurors questioned Monday told a judge they had seen media coverage about the case of a former asphalt plant worker accused of killing a 14-year-old girl whose charred body was found at the plant.
Questioning by attorneys highlighted the difficulties of seating an impartial jury in a close-knit community where many prospective jurors in the capital murder case against Adam Longoria, 38, also knew the family or some of the witnesses. Several would-be jurors had attended a vigil for Alicia DeBolt after her August 2010 killing.
A couple of women on the panel got so emotional just answering questions about their knowledge of the case that they began crying in the jury box and were excused.
The first day of jury selection ended with 19 potential jurors accepted into the pool. A total of 42 must be chosen for the final pool before attorneys can use their rights to dismiss jury candidates without having to give a reason. A panel of 12 jurors and two alternates will then hear the case.
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Alicia disappeared the weekend before she would have started her freshman year in high school. Her body was found three days later at the asphalt plant where Longoria worked just south of Great Bend. Her body was so badly burned that the specific cause of death remains unknown, although officials say she was not burned to death.
Longoria was arrested after he was found driving an SUV stolen from the company.
Prosecutors say they have hundreds of text messages, surveillance photos from the convenience store where Longoria bought a half-gallon of gas the night of Alicia’s disappearance, gruesome crime scene photos and DNA evidence.
Longoria has denied wrongdoing and says he didn’t see Alicia the night she disappeared. He was released from a Texas prison where he had been serving a seven-year sentence for aggravated robbery three months before Alicia was killed.
Longoria faces revised charges of capital murder, vehicle burglary and theft.
Several prospective jurors acknowledged having opinions about the case but assured the court they could make a decision based on the evidence presented. One would-be juror who said she believed Longoria was guilty asked attorneys: "How will I know I will be unbiased when I get down to it?"
But a single mother with two sick children who was excused said the media coverage would be too much for her to overlook.
"If I was in his shoes, I wouldn’t want me here," said another prospective juror who was later excused.
When informed that the prosecution has to prove Longoria’s guilt but that the defense doesn’t have to prove his innocence, one surprised juror asked: "Why not?" But he remained in the pool after the law was explained to him.
But four other jury candidates were let go after saying they would want the defense to prove to them that Longoria was innocent.
Jury selection was expected to take two to four days for the two-week trial.
The state is not seeking the death penalty, but if convicted of capital murder Longoria could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.