SNOW HILL – The trial of an Ocean City man charged with first-degree murder in the beating death of a Berlin teen in May began on Wednesday with an hours-long jury selection phase, providing new insight to the lengthy, but critical process for both the state and the defense.
It was standing room only in the historic courtroom in Snow Hill on Wednesday as the trial began for Dominic Richard Canale, 22, of Ocean City, who is charged with first-degree murder in the beating death of Michael Harry Mitchell in an otherwise quiet neighborhood in Berlin. After the start of the trial was delayed briefly because one of the witnesses was reportedly stuck in traffic because of an accident on Route 113, Judge Theodore Eschenberg, who is presiding over the case, began the lengthy process of selecting the jury that will ultimately decide Canale’s fate.
At least 100 potential jurors crowded into the courtroom, joining dozens of others including family members of the accused and the victim, witnesses who will ultimately be called in the case, members of the media and even curiosity seekers. The result was a standing room only crowd with every seat in the many benches filled along with a throng around the perimeter of the courtroom two deep in some places.
The first order of business was selecting a jury of 12 of Canale’s peers along with two alternates from the pool of at least 100 potential candidates. What followed was a lesson in the legal system in general, and reminder of the complexities of selecting a jury specifically. First, Eschenberg provided a broad list of instructions to the jury pool covering a variety of standard issues that might be heard in any courtroom in the country.
Then, Eschenberg interviewed each and every potential juror at the bench while Deputy State’s Attorney Mike Farlow, who is prosecuting the case, and defense attorney Charles Bruce Anderson, along with Canale himself, stood by closely scribbling notes on sheets of paper with the jurors’ names and numbers on them. The potential jurors were brought before the bench in small groups based on where they were sitting or standing in the courtroom in a slow process that lasted about an hour and a half. No more than a few of the potential jurors were dismissed during this phase of the process and most went back to their seats or where they were standing.
The judge then addressed the remaining members of the jury pool, asking them a wide variety of questions designed to winnow the size of the group further. With each question, members of the jury pool that responded yes or were uncertain of their answers were asked to stand up. The questions ranged from their possible relationship to the defendant to their potential knowledge of the case to their potential relationship with the attorneys on either side or their relationship to the witnesses.
As each question was asked, typically a half a dozen or so of the potential jurors stood up and explained to Eschenberg his or her relationship to the parties involved. Quite a few of the potential jurors responded they knew, worked with or lived near the defendant, the victim, the witnesses, the attorneys or the law enforcement officers involved in the case.
However, most told the judge their relationships with the parties involved would not prevent them from being a fair and impartial juror in the case. A few were dismissed during this segment of the jury selection process, but after well over an hour, the field was still not much smaller than it was when the process started.
Eschenberg then asked the jury pool another handful of questions more specific to the case at hand. For example, the jurors were asked if they had any philosophical difficulty with the concept of innocent until proven guilty. They were also asked if being shown potentially gory pictures would cause them any problem. In a question that would prove to be prophetic later when the trial began, the jurors were asked if they believed self defense was an acceptable reason to take another’s life under certain circumstances. Again, a handful of potential jurors were dismissed during this segment of the process.
With the extensive question and answer period dispensed with, Farlow and Anderson were ready to get down to the nuts and bolts of the process. The clerk of the court announced each potential juror’s name and number one by one and they were asked to stand up. As each was called, the two attorneys in the case would either accept to deny them as members of the jury. If either attorney rejected a juror, they would be asked to sit back down. If both attorneys accepted a juror, they would be asked to proceed to the jury box. One by one, the seats in the jury box were filled until there were 12 jurors and two alternates.
Whether by design, or by accident, the attorneys ended up with a jury that appears to be a representative cross sample of Worcester’s population. The final jury included seven females and five males of varying ages. It also included eight white jurors and four African-American jurors, again of varying ages and apparent socio-economic backgrounds.