For Judith Mittleider, jury duty ended last week with a phone call from Spokane County. It was the first time the Spokane resident felt pure relief at being rejected.
She escaped one of the toughest jobs in the legal system: listening to a month of testimony, then perhaps deciding if a man deserves the death penalty.
Mittleider was among those who’ve been released from the “Andrews pool” - 110 people who three weeks ago began the ordeal of finding out if they will serve as jurors in the double-murder trial of 26-year-old Joseph Andrews.
“That is the kind of thing that scared me,” Mittleider said after learning she was released because of family commitments.
“I didn’t want to wake up one day a year from now, wishing I had made a different decision,” said Mittleider, who is helping raise a teenage grandson.
Mittleider was one of about 45 potential jurors excused from Andrews jury consideration for various reasons.
Today and Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys hope to trim the group to a final 12, plus three alternates.
On Wednesday, attorneys hope to begin four weeks of testimony to determine if Andrews gunned down Eloise Patrick and Larry Eaves, both of Spokane, in a parked car in 1994.
Defense attorneys Phillip Wetzel and Kevin Curtis say Andrews is innocent.
If the defendant is convicted of aggravated murder as charged, jurors must also decide if he deserves the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.
Like the 109 other prospective jurors who began the screening process last month, Spokane nurse Mary Bruck said she arrived at the courthouse knowing nothing about the Andrews case.
The first morning, she and the others filled out a 22-page questionnaire.
“Filling out the answers, the room turned quiet real fast,” said Bruck, director of nursing supplies for Beverly Health and Rehabilitation Center.
“People read the questions and saw ‘death penalty,’ and you could feel everyone getting real serious,” said Bruck, who was released from jury duty because of job commitments.
Others have been released for “cause” any indication they would not be fair and impartial during the trial.
It took three weeks of individual questioning before Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder had a group of 60 “death-qualified” prospective jurors. They made the cut because they had no personal hardships preventing jury duty and no absolute position for or against the death penalty.
For many in the jury pool, those individual sessions were like hour-long trials.
Answering questions from the judge and four veteran attorneys, the potential jurors found themselves seated 15 feet from Andrews, who watched and listened to every response.
“I really wasn’t expecting to see the defendant there, watching us, nodding, looking at his notes,” said Bruce Kuest, one of the potential jurors who was eventually excluded.
Kuest, a 32-year-old equipment specialist at Deaconess Medical Center, said he was excluded “probably because I’m pretty direct in support of the death penalty.” In his written answers, Kuest said he wished the American legal system wasted less time on lengthy appeals, adding “the Chinese legal system” was quicker and more efficient.
All potential jurors were asked three basic questions: Had they heard about this case before? Did they believe the court system was racist? Would they be willing to impose the death penalty?
For many being questioned, a sense of dread surfaced after hearing an attorney throw the ultimate question straight at them: “Could you impose the death penalty?”
Prospective juror Bridget Jones went through her interview this week and had no trouble replying, “I could be a fair juror and consider the death penalty if the defendant is convicted.”
A few seconds later, she needed to add: “Personally, I am incapable of seeing myself take on that role. I’m not sure I am able to do that.”
The next morning, Jones learned she had been excused from jury service.
In addition to an unlimited number of removals for “cause,” lawyers on each side can reject up to 12 prospective jurors without giving a reason.
“What the attorneys are using, in their juror selection, is a gut reaction,” said Spokane attorney Richard Cease, who defended convicted murderer William Martin in 1984.
Martin faced the death penalty for killing the parents of his former girlfriend, but received a life sentence instead.
“Both sides want to find jurors who might favor their position,” added Cease. “It comes down to a sense of trust.”