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Friday, May 12, 2017

Jury Selection in the Murder Trial of Robert Honsch

The defendant makes eye contact.
There was no shortage of irony during the opening hours of Robert Honsch's murder trial today. With Mother's Day around the corner, the 73-year old is being tried for killing his wife, Marcia Honsch. Twenty two years ago, Marcia's body was found at Tolland State Forest. One week earlier, on September 28, 1995, Robert and Marcia's adolescent daughter, Elizabeth, was discovered wrapped in plastic garbage bags and a sleeping bag at the back of the same strip mall in New Britain, CT, where serial killer suspect William Devin Howell is said to have disposed of his seven victims in 2003. Both women had been shot in the head.

The 72 potential jurors that entered the courtroom this morning represented a living snapshot of America: young and old, varying in race, education, and social status. Most shared one common interest, however: family. This became abundantly clear as they were individually questioned by Judge Constance Sweeney and counsel regarding reasons for excusal from service. Since Judge Sweeney previously informed the group as a whole that the trial would likely run for at least four weeks, many stated that family obligations would interfere with their ability to serve. Some were parents of young children, others were caregivers for elderly parents. Judge Sweeney accepted these reasons for excusal, and also let many jurors go based on the fact that their employers would not pay for more than 3 days off for jury service.

In contrast, others seemed downright eager to get on the jury. When asked if he had seen or read anything about the case, one man said no, he spent all of his time at the computer and didn't even watch television. Defense counsel inquired, "Do you read the news online?" The man said no. Later, when asked if he would find it difficult to see forensic photos displaying graphic images, the same man answered that it would not be a problem as he was used to seeing those things on television shows like C.S.I. and Bones.  

Based on the witness list alone, this promises to be a very interesting trial. Civilian witnesses will arrive from numerous states: Virginia, New York, Florida, Ohio, and New Hampshire. One of those witnesses will be Honsch's ex-wife from Ohio, Sheryl Tyree. An even larger list of DNA analysts, criminologists, fingerprint experts, and law enforcement officers will testify, some of them coming from as far away as England, Australia, and South Africa.

When questioning jurors who had not been excused, Assistant District Attorney Karen Bell asked if any of them had an unfavorable or distrusting view of law enforcement, especially in light of the media's coverage of some high profile cases in recent years. Defense counsel's questions were a little more substantial and focused on two issues. Firstly, did the prospective juror understand that Honsch was not being tried for the death of his daughter, Elizabeth, even though evidence would be presented regarding her death? The current trial is for the murder of Marcia, not Elizabeth. Evidence regarding Elizabeth could be evaluated for "limited purposes" such as indicating that both were killed pursuant to a scheme or plan. Secondly, did they understand that behavior indicative of a "guilty conscience" was not enough, in and of itself, to prove actual guilt? This was obviously asked in anticipation of facts emerging that Honsch left the country, and then moved to Ohio, following the murders. He also took the last name of his new wife in Ohio, Tyree, making it hard for the Honsch family to locate him.

When the prosecution discussed my presence in the courtroom off record and Honsch realized that I was "press," he seemed to come to life. He stared at me face on for extended periods of time, as if to say, "Make sure you take my good side." His hair is an unusual shade of platinum grey, long and held back in a pony tail that barely covers the bald spot at the back of his head. His shirt was oversized and hung loosely from his aging frame. Pass this guy in a Litchfield County Coffee Bar and you wouldn't think twice. And here he was, sitting feet away from me, charged with murdering the mother of his child... and his child. 

Today, Judge Sweeney ruled that the jury's upcoming visits to crime scenes would be divided into two separate days. On one day, a bus would take them to Tolland State Forest, to the location where Marcia's body was found. The next day, the bus would take them to the back of the strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, where Elizabeth was found swaddled like an infant; not exactly something a stranger would do to his victim. It's more of a paternal gesture, in my opinion.

One final observation about today's proceedings: this is a class act courtroom; controlled, professional, and set on abiding by bedrock, Constitutional principles. I have practiced in front of well over 100 judges in my legal career and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Judge Sweeney wears a white hat, thus far. She is friendly with the jurors and counsel, and competently expresses complicated legal concepts in a way that the everyday Joe or Jane can grasp. Hampden County is lucky to have her on the bench.