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By DAMON LAWRENCE
Sensing the two sides could be close to seating a jury in the Rocky Houston case, Special Judge James “Buddy” Scott decided to hold court a little longer than he originally planned on Thursday. It turned out to be a good idea because shortly after 6 p.m., the defense and the prosecution finally accepted a jury to hear the case. Opening statements in the double murder trial could begin Friday morning.
The jurors are not being sequestered. Scott gave them strict instructions before they left the courthouse.
“Make sure you don't talk this over with your husbands or wives,” Scott said.
“If somebody tries to contact you, immediately report that to an officer,” he added.
Sixteen jurors – 12 plus four alternates – were selected to hear the case. They weren't sworn in before they left court on Thursday. Scott said he plans to have them take the oath Friday morning. Before that happens, there may still be some issues to sort out.
“One of the jurors said they had a question that bothered me,” Scott said. “I may be taking that up before we swear in this jury.”
One of the female jurors said she's the caregiver for an elderly woman, and wanted to know if Scott planned to hold court on Saturday. If so, she said she needed to know so she could make arrangements to have someone fill in for her.
“I haven't thought past today,” Scott said.
Timing could be crucial in the trial with Christmas three weeks away. One of the challenges for Scott could be finding the right balance between being expeditious and fair.
“We're in the Christmas season, we're trying to move this case,” Scott told the jurors. “It's an important case and I don't want to move it so fast that we don't do justice to it. Somewhere in between reasonableness has to be a part of that.”
The lawyers spent two days picking a jury. The long and tedious selection process seemed to wear on some of the prospective jurors. Scott allowed them to bring drinks inside the courtroom during jury questioning. That's usually not allowed. The judge also gave the people several breaks to stretch, use the bathroom and smoke.
Roane County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Jones and Mike Brown died during a shootout with Houston and his brother Leon on May 11, 2006. The state claims their deaths were the result of a premeditated ambush perpetrated by the Houstons. The brothers, who are being tried separately, claim they acted in self defense.
The outcome of Rocky's trial could hinge on the jury's interpretation of self defense. Defense attorney Randy Rogers used numerous examples to convey his interpretation of the law.
“If I came in your house with a gun and a knife tonight and you could get to your gun and kill me, it would not be a crime,” Rogers said. “Do you understand that? Can you apply that in this case if you think it fits?”
Special prosecutor Kenneth Irvine said there's also limitations to the law.
“If the other person that's been a threat to you becomes disarmed, disabled, helpless or can't be a threat to you any further, the right to use deadly force terminates,” he said.
Scott reminded the jurors that proof comes from the witness stand, not questions asked and statements made by attorneys during jury selection.
“What they're trying to do is tell each of you that these are the theories they expect to be developed here in the courtroom,” Scott said. “Can you accept those theories if in fact the court charges you that is the law?”
That answer could come in the form of the jury's verdict.