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Judge Won't Hide Identity of Cosby Jury

Trial: Attorney for the man accused of killing the entertainer's son argues that the case could become a media circus. But the court says panelists face no risk.

June 02, 1998|FREDERICK M. MUIR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The judge who will hear the Ennis Cosby murder trial denied a defense motion Monday to keep jurors' identities a secret, rejecting the notion that jurors are at any compelling risk from the media or anyone else.

Attorney Henry Hall, who represents suspect Mikail Markhasev, told the court that he feared that the trial could quickly degenerate into the same sort of media circus as the O.J. Simpson case, in which some jurors became unwilling celebrities.

"The [Simpson] jurors were castigated," said Hall, whose unsuccessful motion won concurrence from prosecutors. That "creates an expectation on the part of the jurors who saw the last high-profile case that 'If we don't [convict], we're going to be called brain-dead, we're going to be called stupid, we're going to be called boneheads.' "

Hall's request was opposed by The Times and other news media, which argued that the judicial process is intended to be an open one, conducted in the full light of public scrutiny.

"Jurors may get criticized [by the media], but that's the way the system is set up," said Kelli Sager, an attorney representing The Times. Besides, she added, "this is not the O.J. Simpson case."

Santa Monica Superior Court Judge David D. Perez agreed, ruling from the bench that all juror questionnaires will be publicly available. The judge then began the process of assembling a panel for what is expected to be a four- to six-week trial of Markhasev. The 19-year-old Ukrainian emigre is charged with shooting entertainer Bill Cosby's 27-year-old son to death on a dark Los Angeles roadside last year in what police believe was a robbery.

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Markhasev could face life in prison without parole if convicted of one count each of murder and attempted robbery and an allegation that he used a firearm to kill Ennis Cosby. Under state law, Markhasev could be subject to the death penalty, but the district attorney's office has said that it will not seek it.

Perez on Monday began the laborious process of "time qualifying" prospective panelists, in which the court attempts to determine who has the time to sit through a lengthy trial. About 450 potential jurors are expected to be called to get 100 that can stay for the duration, with the 12 panelists and six alternates to be chosen from that group.

The first 145 were called Monday. With looks of anxious boredom, the potential panelists, wearing everything from blue jeans to blue pinstripes, lined up outside the temporary modular courthouse where they would learn just how they may spend the next month or more.

Nervously shifting from foot to foot as they stood in an irregular line, the prospective jurors stiffened noticeably as shackled prisoners were escorted through the crowded court hallways in their blue jailhouse jumpsuits.

But even as they entered the tight confines of the courtroom, few apparently realized that the young man in the gray pinstriped suit and natty haircut was the teenager accused of the brutal murder of a celebrity's son.

Asked by Perez who among them was unable to stay for the duration of the trial, a few dozen raised their hands and offered excuses ranging from financial hardship because employers will not pay for time off, to planned vacations, to health concerns.

Perez realized that the remaining assembled panelists were still unaware of the high-profile nature of the case.

"This is a criminal case," he told them matter-of-factly. "The victim in this case is named Ennis Cosby. His father is an entertainer, Bill Cosby."

There was no immediate reaction from the potential jurors, though within a few minutes a few more hands went up as people claimed an inability to stay for the entire trial.

Markhasev, meanwhile, sat quietly with his two attorneys through the hearing. Four friends and relatives of the immigrant sat in the front row. At one point, Markhasev winked and smiled at his grandmother in the first row.

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In all, 79 of the first 145 potential jurors were excused, one by one in a steady stream out the back door. The remaining 66 were given a 20-page questionnaire that asks about their background, education, work experience and views on issues such as celebrity. (Bill Cosby, often called America's favorite TV dad from his years on "The Cosby Show," has said he will not attend the trial.)

It was the questionnaires that defense attorney Hall had wanted sealed. They are used by defense and prosecution attorneys in the "voir dire" process in which lawyers pick or excuse jurors who they believe would be sympathetic to their case or could hinder their efforts. The voir dire is slated to begin with a pool of 100 potential jurors on June 16.

While ruling against Hall, Perez did allow that if any individual juror expressed concern about having his or her identity released, he would consider making select deletions from the public record.

Out of the first pool of 75 jurors, only one asked to have some personal information deleted. Perez has scheduled a brief hearing on that request today.

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