ROANOKE — Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Carlton stood in front of 21 possible jurors Wednesday and told them she and her colleagues “will present evidence that an innocent man was gunned down.”
Carlton was referring to the Aug. 20, 2016, shooting death of Christopher Lamont Motley at the Southwyck Hills Apartments in Danville, which is the main focus of a federal trial that started this week. The trial was moved from the U.S. District Court in Danville to the one in Roanoke where a bigger courtroom can accommodate the eight defendants.
Those defendants face a variety of charges, including murder and racketeering, that are alleged to be related to gang activity.
As he spoke to the prospective jurors Wednesday, defense attorney Chris Kowalczuk referred back to Carlton’s comments about the innocent man who died.
“Presumption of innocence is the same thing,” Kowalczuk said, gesturing to the table of defendants. “These defendants, as they sit here, are innocent.”
It served as an example of the back-and-forth between the state and a fleet of defense attorneys (each of the eight defendants has at least one lawyer). The two sides have grilled potential jurors for three days, discharging 34 of the 71 people who have reported to court.
There will be one more day with a batch of new prospective jurors, and then those who made it through the first round of cuts will return for a final day of selection. After that, the plan is for 18 jurors to be left — 12 of whom will reach a verdict at the close of the trial.
Chief Judge Michael Urbanski has said in court he hopes to finish jury selection this week. After that, the prosecution will begin to present its case. Attorneys have told jurors to expect a trial of more than four weeks, because of the complexity of the case and the expansive list of witnesses.
Carlton read a list of 138 witnesses (44 civilians and 94 law enforcement officers) who might testify for the prosecution. Some of the defense attorneys listed more witnesses who might take the stand. They read these names to prospective jurors to see if they knew any of the witnesses.
The process of selecting a jury has been tedious and repetitive, but Urbanski and attorneys have said over and again that it is vital to the trial to find an impartial jury. The process went past 8 p.m. Tuesday and past 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Many prospective jurors have voiced concern about the length of the trial and about the serious subjects that will arise. Urbanski has told jurors that, if necessary, the court will pay for jurors’ mileage or for them to stay in a hotel in Roanoke during the week.
One theme during questioning this week has been whether prospective jurors assume that a person who is involved with a gang is more likely to be involved in criminal activity. Many of the charges in this case, attorneys have said, are in connection with the Rollin’ 60s Crips street gang and its alleged activities in Danville.
Almost every prospective juror said they had a negative view of gangs, and many of them said they associated gangs with violence and illegal acts. Some said they could separate a person from their gang affiliation and just consider the evidence in the case, while some admitted they could not put their preconception aside. More often than not, those with strong anti-gang opinions were dismissed.
Lawyers have also repeatedly told jurors about the complex nature of the case with so many defendants and charges. Defense attorney Jimmy Turk was particularly animated Wednesday, saying jurors will have to consider whether to assign guilt for much more than only the murder charge.