Jury selection for Hall County’s first locally prosecuted death penalty trial in nine years will go into a second week.
As of late Friday afternoon, Judge John Girardeau had questioned 72 potential jurors this week on their opinions about punishment for the crime of murder. Of those, 34 were qualified to serve on the jury. The judge has said he wants a group of 55 or 56 people qualified before attorneys make the final selection of 12 jurors plus four alternates.
A total of 282 Hall County residents have been called for jury selection in the case of Ignacio Vergara. Vergara, 26, is on trial on charges of murder in connection with the 2002 drug-related shooting deaths of two people in a parked car on a remote South Hall road. He has pleaded not guilty.
In order to be qualified to sit on a jury in a case in which the death penalty is sought, a person must be open to choosing any of three sentencing options if the defendant is convicted: life with the possibility of parole, life without parole or death by lethal injection. Jurors must find that certain aggravating circumstances exist in a crime before voting for anything other than life with the possibility of parole.
This week, dozens of people either said they could not vote for death or could not vote for one of the other two options.
Individual questioning of jurors, known as sequestered voir dire, was conducted with each potential juror taking the witness stand, as Girardeau, then lawyers for the prosecution and defense, posed questions. Girardeau prefaced the questioning by explaining certain aspects of criminal procedure. The individual sessions have taken anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes per person.
Opinions of potential jurors have varied widely.
"If they’re found guilty, I think they should suffer the appropriate punishment, which is the death penalty," said one woman in her 60s.
Another woman said she could not vote for the death penalty under any circumstance. A man in his 30s said he could not vote for life with the possibility of parole for someone convicted of murder.
It’s the first time Hall County citizens have been asked to serve on a jury for a death penalty trial since 2005, when a Towns County case was moved to Hall County. Vergara is the first person on trial facing the possibility of the death penalty in connection with a crime committed in Hall County since 1999.
A total of 136 citizens have been scheduled to come in next week, with 22 due to report to court Monday.
Those who are selected to serve on the jury will be sequestered in a hotel until the end of the trial.