Jury selection continues for Bart Johnson’s trial

Published 8:13 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2011

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA – Jury selection continued Tuesday in preparation for the murder trial of a Kimberly man accused of shooting and killing a Pelham police officer.

Bart Johnson faces two counts of capital murder, one for intentionally killing an on-duty police officer and another for intentionally causing death by shooting from an occupied vehicle.

Johnson has pleaded not guilty to both charges by reason of mental disease or defect.

The trial could begin as early as Thursday at the Shelby County Courthouse.

Jury selection began Monday, with 127 potential jurors filling out lengthy questionnaire forms. Retired Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Al Crowson split the potential jurors into two groups.

The first group of 64 appeared in his courtroom Tuesday and fielded questions from Crowson, the prosecution and the defense.

Johnson, wearing a suit and tie, was present for the questioning.

Johnson’s charges came after Pelham police officer Philip Davis was shot and killed during a traffic stop on Interstate 65 in December 2009.

Each potential juror was called into the courtroom one at a time. Crowson began the questioning by asking the potential juror if he or she had read, heard or seen anything about the case prior to being summoned for jury duty Monday.

Crowson then asked if the potential juror could set aside any impressions or opinions he or she may have already formed and render a verdict based solely on evidence presented in court.

Should the jury reach a guilty verdict, Crowson asked potential jurors, would he or she be able to proceed to the sentencing phase and choose between life without parole or the death penalty?

The prosecution and the defense then had the chance to ask questions of the potential jurors. The majority of the questions dealt with views on the death penalty and prior knowledge about the case.

Crowson posed a special question to eight jurors following Tuesday’s lunch break, after defense lawyers said Johnson was led from the courtroom to a holding room with a “belly chain” around his waist and his hands shackled. Security officers walked Johnson past the law library, where eight jurors were waiting to be called for questioning.

Crowson asked those eight potential jurors if they happened to see the defendant while they were waiting.

Two potential jurors said they saw Johnson pass the room but did not mention seeing Johnson in chains. Another said she might have seen Johnson from behind as he passed by but didn’t mention seeing him in chains.

Four potential jurors said they saw nothing, and another said she didn’t see Johnson but indicated she might have heard another potential juror mention something about Johnson passing by.

Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens said numerous times throughout the questioning that the prosecution, as well as the defense, was looking for jurors who were not absolutely for life without parole or absolutely for the death penalty.

“We’re trying to get to the people in the middle,” Owens said many times throughout.

The remaining 63 jurors will be questioned Wednesday starting at 8 a.m.

Owens previously said it would take “a couple hours” Thursday morning to seat a 12-person jury, and that the first witness could be called before lunch Thursday.