Several potential jurors admitted they were “nervous” and expressed other signs of discomfort Monday when asked if they were capable of sentencing a defendant to death for a 2003 kidnapping that resulted in an Atlanta man being shot in the mouth and left dead in Tennessee.
“We’re basically asking you to bury your soul,” defense attorney Lee Ortwein admitted at one point during jury selection for the federal murder trial in which he aggressively demanded to know why certain panelists believe in capital punishment.
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown
Rejon Taylor is escorted out of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building and Courthouse on Monday evening after the first day of jury selection in the trial of Mr. Taylor, who is charged with kidnapping and killing Violette restaurant owner Guy Luck.
Though a select few had views that wouldn’t budge — “People should be executed by the same method they kill,” said one panelist — many tripped over their words and seemed to question their beliefs when faced with the prospect of becoming a member of the rare “death-qualified” jury that could have the power to deliver the ultimate punishment.
“The philosophical discussions you’ve had in the past have now become sort of reality,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Neff, who wants to select jurors who would have the least trouble sentencing defendant Rejon Taylor to death.
Mr. Ortwein and three other defense attorneys, however, are trying hard to select jurors who would consider saving Mr. Taylor’s life in the event they find him guilty, even though the circumstances of the crime make the jury legally obligated to consider imposing capital punishment.
Mr. Taylor’s case represents the first-ever death penalty trial being held in Eastern Tennessee’s federal courts district. Normally the domain of state judicial systems, seeking the death penalty in the federal system is extremely rare and must be sanctioned by the U.S. attorney general.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1,200 federal homicide cases across the country between 2001 and 2006 had death penalty-eligible defendants, meaning the crimes involved certain aggravating factors that made death a legal punishment.
The U.S. attorney general, however, ultimately chose to seek the death penalty in only 158 of those cases, with just 30 defendants actually receiving death sentences after being found guilty at trial.
Though graphic details of the crime prosecutors claim Mr. Taylor committed are expected to come out during the six-week trial, all they have made public for now is their belief he had a “reckless disregard for life” when he intentionally killed Atlanta restaurant owner Guy Luck.
Mr. Taylor did it for “pecuniary gain,” according to court documents, and also carried out the kidnapping of the victim from the parking lot of his restaurant in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood as a result of “substantial planning and premeditation.”
The crime would end, prosecutors say, with Mr. Taylor shooting Mr. Luck in the mouth and dumping his body in Collegedale.
Mr. Taylor’s two alleged accomplices — Sir Jack Matthews and Joey Marshall — have already pleaded guilty to murder, car jacking and kidnapping and are scheduled to testify against the defendant as a part of their plea agreements. Mr. Taylor faces the same charges.
The diminutive Mr. Taylor, who has been incarcerated in the Hamilton County Jail since 2003, attempted a jailbreak in early 2006 and still maintains his innocence, wore wire-rimmed glasses and looked far younger than his 24 years as he sat surrounded by his four attorneys in U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier’s federal courtroom in Chattanooga.
His mother Reba Taylor also sat quietly in the courtroom, although prosecutors say she is prohibited from having contact with her son since she was indicted for allegedly providing the get-away car in the 2006 jailbreak attempt in which several jail officers were injured with homemade shanks.
The seriousness — and novelty — of the situation showed on the first day of jury selection, which lasted until 8 p.m. Monday and involved tedious questioning designed to test fundamental belief systems on crime and punishment. The approximately 75 people who showed up had already filled out a 70-question jury questionnaire, a rare tool of jury selection used only in the most complicated cases.
Questioning Monday also focused heavily on the “sentencing stage” of the trial should Mr. Taylor be found guilty. The defense hopes certain “mitigating factors” they present at a possible sentencing hearing, such as Mr. Taylor’s young age and his upbringing in a single-parent home, will be taken into account by jurors as they contemplate his punishment.
Mr. Taylor was 19 years old at the time of the alleged crime.
Jury selection is expected to continue today, with the process expected to be complete by Wednesday. Opening arguments are expected to follow immediately.