A judge has set a trial date for Hall County's first death penalty trial in nine years.
Jury selection could begin Aug. 11 in the long-delayed trial of Ignacio Vergara, one of two men charged in a drug-related double homicide that happened in March 2002.
Vergara and co-defendant Brigido Soto were accused of shooting to death two 25-year-old men in a car parked on a gravel road in South Hall. Alejandro Santana and Francesco Saucedo were killed for two kilograms of cocaine, authorities have alleged.
A notice of intent to seek the death penalty against both suspects was filed when Jason Deal, now a Hall County Superior Court judge, was district attorney for Hall County.
Soto reached an agreement with prosecutors last year to plead guilty to murder and testify against Vergara in exchange for two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Soto will not be sentenced until Vergara's case is adjudicated.
Senior Superior Court Judge John Girardeau issued a June 6 order setting a trial date after a Georgia Supreme Court opinion settled all remaining pre-trial issues. District Attorney Lee Darragh confirmed Friday that the state would continue to seek the death penalty in the case.
"It is a death penalty case, and it is scheduled for trial, beginning Aug. 11," Darragh said. He would not comment on whether any plea offers had been extended to Vergara in the case.
Vergara's lead defense attorney, Lee Parks, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Barring a negotiated plea, the first full week of the trial and possibly more is likely to be consumed with jury selection. Jurors in death penalty cases must be open to sentencing a person to either life in prison with the chance of parole, life in prison with no parole, or death. Potential jurors in death penalty cases are questioned extensively by lawyers in what one local attorney called a "vetting process."
Dan Summer, a veteran criminal defense attorney with no involvement in Vergara's case, said a larger than normal number of potential jurors are typically summoned in order to narrow the pool to a panel of 12, plus alternates.
"People have such strong feelings about the death penalty, that it usually takes four times the number" of an ordinary criminal trial, Summer said.
It was not known how many jury summonses would be sent out for the case. Clerk of Superior Court Dwight Wood did not immediately return a phone message Friday.
Potential jurors who are summoned and wish to be excused for special reasons will appear before Girardeau in sessions set for July 25 and Aug. 4, according to the judge's order.
The last death penalty trial in Hall County was held in June 1999. Scotty G. Morrow was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a 1994 rampage in which he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend Ann Young, 26, her friend Tonya Woods, 21, and seriously wounded another woman. Darragh was the lead prosecutor in that case.
Morrow, 41, remains on death row awaiting execution.
Two other death penalty cases are pending in Hall. Allan Robert Dickie is charged with murder and rape in the August 2007 stabbing death of 37-year-old Claudia Toppin. Cornelio Zamites is charged in the June 2005 rape and strangulation death of 4-year-old Esmeralda Nava.