With jury seated, proceedings begin today in Rowan Sweeney killing trial
YOUNGSTOWN — Wednesday’s jury selection was the last step before opening statements begin today in the Brandon Crump aggravated murder trial.
A jury of 12 and four alternates was seated late Wednesday in the courtroom of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony D’Apolito. Crump is charged with killing 4-year-old Rowan Sweeney and wounding four adults in a home in Struthers in 2020.
The kind of jury selection carried out Wednesday involved the defense and prosecution asking the pool of about 52 potential jurors questions about themselves — frequently based on the answers they gave on their jury questionnaire. The focus of the questioning started out with the 12 potential jurors “in the box,” meaning they were seated in the 12 jury seats in the courtroom. The remaining potential jurors filled the gallery and other seats, listening to the questions so they could be ready for similar questions if they made it “in the box.”
But the prosecution and defense also got to tell potential jurors things to think about as they listen to the evidence. For instance, defense attorney Lou DeFabio talked about the sympathy everyone feels for Rowan and his family.
“That’s just a terrible thing. And I think we would be less than human if we didn’t feel sympathy for that,” DeFabio said. “Is there anybody here who thinks he will not feel sympathy? But this is a court of law, not a court of sympathy. And it’s OK to feel sympathy. It’s OK to feel bad.
“It’s OK not to be able to look at gruesome, graphic crime pictures. I know. But as you said, it’s a job. So it’s not that you can’t have sympathy. It’s that you can’t let it affect your job as a juror.”
DeFabio said “You can’t let it affect the way you weigh the credibility of the witness. You can’t let it affect the way you weigh evidence.”
He then asked, “Is there anybody here who thinks they can’t put sympathy aside? Anybody? You’re all shaking your head no?”
None of the 12 jurors “in the box” appeared to indicate they would have trouble doing that.
DeFabio also used former President Donald Trump’s pending criminal charges as an example of how they should view criminal charges filed against Trump, Crump or anyone.
“People that don’t like Donald Trump think the fact that he’s been indicted means ‘See, he’s guilty. He’s done all these things.’ No, it really doesn’t. It means he’s been charged with crimes for a jury to decide.”
DeFabio said an indictment “in and of itself means nothing,” asking “Does anybody have a problem with that?” It appeared none of the 12 jurors in the box disagreed.
When Jennifer Bonish, Mahoning County assistant prosecutor, spoke to the potential jurors, she wanted them to understand that this case does not involve the possibility of Crump getting the death penalty. She said she’s aware that the death penalty makes some people “very uncomfortable.”
“I know some people did ask about this,” she said.
She was talking about the individual questioning of potential jurors Monday and Tuesday in a small room away from other jurors. She said the Crump case is “not the type of case where you would ever be asked to consider punishment. Your duties here will be confined to deciding what happened and to decide guilt or nonguilt of the defendant.”
Bonish then asked a couple of potential jurors whether they had been involved in any previous criminal or civil cases. One had been a juror in a criminal trial about 40 years ago. Then she was asked if anything about it would make it difficult for her to serve as a juror again.
The woman said the hard part is the “huge responsibility, but I think we all feel that. It’s a lot of information, I believe. The judge had indicated that a lot of information will be coming our way.”
Bonish said the judge will tell jurors dbefore they go to the jury room to deliberate the verdict that the group can help everyone recall the testimony and facts.
“You can rely on your collective memory,” Bonish said. “So there may be things that stand out to one juror that another juror didn’t notice as much or vice-versa.
“You will have the 11 other jurors that are back there with you to talk with and deliberate with to help with that process. Do you think that will be helpful to you?”
The woman seemed to agree.
Bonish explained the standard by which the jurors must decide whether to find Crump guilty is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” She said the judge will explain that “proof beyond a reasonable doubt is based on your reason and common sense, and that is something every one of you brings into the courtroom, right? Your reason and common sense. You don’t have to leave that at the door.”
She said the judge will explain that “this is the level of certainty you would need in the most important of your own affairs.”
Bonish then asked how many potential jurors have pets and several jurors raised their hands.
A woman with a cat was asked how much effort she would put into finding a proper kennel for her cat. The potential juror said she would contact the facility and ask questions or visit the facility.
“Do you think you would physically go there and speak to every single person who works there? Do you think you would go there and spend the night to see what it’s like for your cat?” Bonish asked. The woman said no.
Bonish said finding someone guilty in a criminal trial beyond a reasonable doubt is like making a reasonable attempt to find a safe kennel.
“Based on reason and common sense is not something imaginary,” Bonish said. “You probably wouldn’t have any concern that your cat would be stolen by an alien while it was at the kennel, correct? Because that’s probably an imaginary doubt. That’s probably not using common sense, right?” The woman said no.
D’Apolito at one point emphasized to the potential jurors how important it is for them not to use the internet to research anything about this case or talk to someone about the case.
He mentioned that Tuesday a juror in a rape case in Judge Maureen Sweeney’s courtroom was dismissed because she read a newspaper article about the rape case before she came to court. The trial resumed without her, and one of the alternates took her place.
D’Apolito mentioned the amount of time the jurors spent at the courthouse already during individual questioning Monday and Tuesday.
He said “All of the work we have done … we could sink that in a minute if someone disobeys an instruction and goes and researches or talks to someone else about this case. It taints the jury.”