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Jury selection in Lanier boat deaths trial to continue Tuesday
Paul Bennett watches as jury selection takes place Monday in Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin’s Hall County Superior Courtroom. Bennett is accused in the 2012 boating deaths of Buford boys Jake and Griffin Prince.

Jury selection is set to continue today in the trial of Paul J. Bennett, charged with homicide in a June 18, 2012, boat collision that killed two boys.

Bennett, 45, of Cumming, is on trial in Hall County Superior Court, charged with eight counts of homicide by vessel, failure to render aid, reckless operation of a vessel and boating under the influence.

The accident left two brothers dead, Buford boys Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13. Authorities say Bennett was drunk when his fishing boat hit the pontoon boat the Prince family and friends were riding.

During questioning, most of the panel of about 100 jurors said they had heard about the incident.

The burden of proving Bennett guilty rests on the state, and defense attorneys are tasked with measuring whether potential jurors’ perception of the case has compromised their ability through a predetermination of guilt.

Bennett’s attorney Barry Zimmerman argued that any juror who had followed the case fit the bill to be struck “for cause,” citing one juror who said that only if he “heard something contrary to what he heard in the news” he might reconsider his conclusion of Bennett’s guilt, and that “multiple sources seemed pretty conclusive.”

Judge Kathlene Gosselin denied Zimmerman’s motion to strike that juror, although she did dismiss a few potential jurors for bias.

District Attorney Lee Darragh argued that the jurors’ opinions were not necessarily so fixed they could not be overcome, and Zimmerman has the option of three strikes beyond what is mandated by cause when final selections are made.

The vast majority from the panel said they had not followed the case since initial reports, echoing the words they heard about the accident “when it happened.”

Amber Sowers, chief assistant solicitor and special prosecutor in the case, led the majority of the day’s questioning for the state.

Sowers tried to gauge the jury pool’s views on drinking, including what they interpreted as intoxication, if they had ever stopped a friend or family member from driving after imbibing and what their general personal preferences were with drinking and driving.

As is typical for the state, Sowers also asked potential jurors about their past experiences with law enforcement, and if any had been negative and how.

Zimmerman attempted to measure the jurors’ attitudes toward drinking and operating boats or vehicles.

About a third of the jury pool said they had consumed alcohol then driven a vehicle, with individual responses ranging from an alcoholic in recovery with three past DUIs to having an occasional glass of wine at dinner.

Zimmerman has also focused on the jury pool’s experience operating boats — whether they operated at night, required life jackets and understood navigation lights. 

About three-fifths of the jury panel were individually questioned before being dismissed for the day.

The trial is expected to go through this week and possibly the beginning of next week, attorneys said.

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