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By DAMON LAWRENCE
At a time when many people will be thinking about shopping, wrapping presents and putting up holiday decorations, 12 Roane County residents could be deciding the fate of Rocky Houston.
The special prosecutor in the case said opening statements in Houston’s double-murder trial could begin this week, provided lawyers are able to seat a jury from a pool of 600.
The possibility of the trial happening so close to Christmas raises several questions:
Will the jury rush through deliberations, so they can be done by Christmas?
Will the holidays make the jury more sympathetic?
Will the jury be apprehensive about convicting Houston of crimes that could bring a life sentence so close to Christmas?
Will the jury decide to cut Houston a break and convict him of a lesser charge?
“This might not be a bad time to have a trial,” said Kingston attorney Chris Cawood.
Cawood and his fellow Roane County attorneys not involved in the case have a mix of opinions about how Christmas could impact jury deliberations.
Cawood seemed to be of the opinion that having the trial so close to Christmas helps the defense.
“They may have decided that’s a good strategy,” Cawood said.
John McFarland, who also practices in Kingston, said his experience with Roane County jurors is that they take their jobs seriously.
He doesn’t believe they would let something like Christmas affect their deliberations.
The fact that the Houston jury is not supposed to be sequestered should help with that, McFarland said, because the jurors will be able to see their families after court hours.
Houston, 48, is accused of killing Roane County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Jones and Mike Brown.
Jones and Brown, a former lawman, died in a shootout with Houston and his older brother, Leon, on May 11, 2006. The brothers claim they acted in self defense.
Leon, 49, was tried in July, but a mistrial was declared after the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked. He’s scheduled to be retried next year.
Art Patterson is a social psychologist and senior vice president of DecisionQuest, a nationally known jury consulting firm.
“Convicting someone of murder is such a major decision by jurors,” Patterson said. “Jurors tell us it’s very hard for them to do that, even when they know in their heart that they’re right. It’s still a very important thing a human being is doing to make that decision.”
Patterson said “Christmas verdicts” do happen, but it tends to depend on the nature of the case.
“Certainly in a case of something minor, a jury may cut a person a break at Christmas,” Patterson said.
“That can happen, but there’s no good evidence that for a murder trial, especially involving law enforcement people, that the fact it’s around Christmas is going to have any impact on jury deliberations or decisions,” he added.
Instead of helping Houston, Patterson said the trial taking place around Christmastime could actually hurt him.
In addition to shopping, wrapping gifts and putting up Christmas decorations, this is also the time of year when many people are thinking about loved ones.
“At Christmastime, jurors will be thinking about family and how important it is, and they could be thinking about the dead guys and their families,” Patterson said.
“Now that’s not to say they will for sure, but that’s just something to think about.”
Special prosecutor Kenneth Irvine said he’s not concerned about the Christmas effect helping Houston.
“I think the proof will be strong enough (the jury) will want to convict,” he said.
Over the years, Rocky Houston has accused President Bush, the judge overseeing his case and the state of Ohio -- among others -- of being involved in a conspiracy against him.
Anything less than an acquittal is likely to be appealed, but Roane County Attorney Tom McFarland said he doesn’t think an appeals court would overturn a jury verdict because a case was decided around Christmastime.
“Not that some jailhouse lawyers wouldn’t try it, but I don’t think that’s much of an argument,” said McFarland, who has a private practice in Kingston and is the brother of John McFarland.
“I don’t think they’d get very far with that.”