Hall County’s first death penalty trial in more than three years began Monday with the start of jury selection that is expected to last at least a week.
Ignacio Vergara, 26, is on trial charged with murder in connection with the March 2002 drug-related shooting deaths of two men in a parked car in South Hall. He has maintained his innocence through a plea of not guilty.
On Monday, about 140 jurors filed into Senior Superior Court Judge John Girardeau’s courtroom for the first steps in what promises to be a meticulous jury selection procedure.
Some 280 jurors — about five times the number that would be called for service on a typical jury trial — will report this week for Vergara’s case. About 500 jurors were initially summoned for the case, but more than 200 summons were either undeliverable or Girardeau excused potential jurors for various hardships.
On Monday afternoon, Judge Girardeau asked the jurors for a lengthy commitment, one that could last up to three weeks, and advised them to read nothing in the newspaper or listen to anything on the radio or the television concerning the case.
He asked that jurors receive all their information about the case from inside the courtroom, and answer the attorneys’ questions honestly.
"I ask that each of you keep an open mind," Girardeau said. "... We all would like for you to relax as best you can."
"This is not like an exam; there is no right or wrong answer. There are only honest answers."
Following Girardeau’s remarks, District Attorney Lee Darragh asked the courtroom full of potential jurors a series of questions regarding their knowledge of the case and other factors that could influence the jurors’ decisions in the courtroom.
Twenty members of the first panel of potential jurors said they had read or heard about Vergara’s case outside of the courtroom.
Many of Darragh’s questions related to potential jurors’ personal experiences involving violent crimes and illegal drugs.
Thirteen potential jurors raised their hands when Darragh asked them if they had known a victim of a violent crime. Thirty-one potential jurors said they had known someone who had battled addiction, and nine said they knew someone who had been arrested on drug-related charges.
Darragh also asked jurors about their abilities to make a decision concerning someone’s innocence or guilt in a criminal trial and asked if any of the potential jurors had served on juries in other criminal cases.
Two potential jurors said they had served as jurors on a previous trial in which the defendant faced the death penalty.
In order to serve on a death penalty trial, a juror must be open to the possibility of three sentencing options: life with the possibility of parole, life with no parole, or death. Those who cannot consider the option of a death sentence are generally disqualified to serve.
Following Darragh’s survey of the potential jurors, Vergara’s attorney, Lee Parks, only asked the first panel of potential jurors two questions. Parks asked if any of the potential jurors had come into contact with him in his capacity as solicitor for Gainesville’s Municipal Court or in his past duties with the district attorney’s office, and if any were certified law enforcement officers.
The last death penalty case tried in Hall County was in March 2005, when a jury sentenced 49-year-old Winston Clay Barrett to death for the shooting death of a friend in Towns County. That trial was moved to Hall County because of pre-trial publicity.
The most recent death penalty trial connected to a crime committed in Hall County was in 1999, when 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.
The decision to seek the death penalty against Vergara was made by then-District Attorney Jason Deal, who is now a superior court judge.
Vergara’s case has been delayed by numerous pre-trial motions, including one issue that was decided just this year by the Georgia Supreme Court.
Jury selection will continue today.
The final panel of 16 jurors, including four alternates, will be sequestered in an area hotel for the length of the trial in order to insulate them from any media coverage of the case.
Court officials hope to finish jury selection in a week and try the case the following week. The courtroom had been reserved for the trial for three weeks, though officials are hopeful the trial wraps up before then.