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Jury Selection Begins in Tuffree Murder Trial

Crime: Many prospective jurors cite hardship to avoid the case. The former Chatsworth teacher could face death the penalty.

May 15, 1996|PAUL ELIAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dozens of pleas were heard in Courtroom 46 on Tuesday, but they didn't come from a defendant.

"My son and daughter-in-law are coming for a visit, and we've already bought the tickets," said one.

"If I don't work, I don't get paid," said another.

"I'm getting married and going on a honeymoon," said a third.

And so the excuses went on the first day of jury selection in the Daniel Allen Tuffree murder trial.

Tuffree, a former Chatsworth high school teacher, is accused of killing Simi Valley Police Officer Michael F. Clark last Aug. 4. He is charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors are seeking his execution.

Several jurors let out audible gasps when Superior Court Judge Allen L. Steele told them of the prosecutors' intentions. The same gasps could be heard when Steele told the prospective jurors that they would be required to be prepared for a three-month trial that could stretch to four months and beyond.

Then the excuses began.

"It's no hardship for me, but I am an elected official and I do have certain responsibilities to my constituents," Ojai Councilwoman Nina Shelley told Steele. "I will leave the decision up to you."

Steele asked Shelley to remain in the juror pool.

Of the 140 prospective jurors called to Steele's courtroom Tuesday, 82 were almost immediately excused for hardship reasons. A significant portion of the 58 remaining jurors are also expected to be excused in the coming days after they return detailed questionnaires.

A large chunk of those excused said they could not afford to miss work for the duration of the trial. Several said they had prepaid airline tickets and other vacation plans for the summer. At least four prospective jurors said they were afraid of losing their jobs, as their large companies were expected to lay off workers.

The first 70 people in the jury pool were called into Steele's courtroom about 10:30 a.m. and filled every available seat. Fifty people declared a hardship and Steele spent the rest of the morning briefly questioning them. Those not excused were asked to fill out the questionnaire, with many more quick releases expected once Steele and the lawyers review the answers.

The same process was repeated in the afternoon and is expected to continue today and on into next week. Steele and lawyers for both sides hope to have a pool of 120 people within two weeks. Each prospective juror in that pool will be questioned individually, with the final jury scheduled to be chosen on June 24.

*

Tuffree, with a new haircut, wore a blue blazer, a blue button-down shirt and tan slacks. With his striped red and blue tie and banker shoes, the 49-year-old Tuffree looked a lot like the attorneys defending him.

He sat quiet and unshackled between his court-appointed attorneys throughout the day, occasionally glancing back and looking at the jury pool. The teacher is accused of killing the 28-year-old Clark after the officer and two colleagues went into Tuffree's Simi Valley backyard.

The officers had received reports that Tuffree was drinking and taking Valium, and were asked to check on him. When Tuffree refused to answer their knocks at his front door, the officers went into his backyard, where a gunfight erupted.

Prosecutors claim that Tuffree nursed a one-sided, three-year grudge against the Simi Valley Police Department that culminated with the slaying of Clark. Defense attorneys claim that the three officers in Tuffree's backyard that day made several tactical mistakes that precipitated the shooting.

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