WENATCHEE — Attorneys in the trial of Christopher Scott Wilson dismissed 30 potential jurors out of a pool of 73 Tuesday, with attorneys worrying aloud about a change of venue.
The first group of remaining juror candidates was sent home at 5:30 p.m., with Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges summoning a second pool of 40 to 60 jurors to be questioned and winnowed down starting at 9:15 a.m. today. The two pools will be combined for questioning as a group on Thursday — delaying opening statements that were intended to start today.
John Henry Browne, Wilson’s primary lawyer in the Mackenzie Cowell murder case, told Bridges he’d written a motion to move the trial to another county based on too much media saturation of potential jurors.
“If and when we need it, we’ll file it,” Browne said.
He buttressed the draft motion with a 3-inch-thick binder of printed Wenatchee World articles and online comments, which lay on the judge’s dais throughout the afternoon jury selection.
“I’m for the first time in my long career very concerned that we may not be able to do this case here,” he told Bridges. “… But I trust jurors when they say, ‘I can be fair despite this.’”
Browne and Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen considered and rejected 22 jurors Tuesday morning, 20 of them based on their responses to a questionnaire written by Browne’s associate Emma Scanlan. The form asked in part about prior exposure to the case through the media.
In the afternoon, lawyers individually questioned 25 more jurors about their knowledge of the case, in which Cowell, 17, went missing from downtown Wenatchee Feb. 9, 2010. She was found dead four days later from strangulation, a stab wound to the neck and a blow to the head.
Wilson, now 31 and a former student at the same hairstyling school Cowell attended, was arrested that October after police said they found genetic material matching his DNA type on a length of duct tape near Cowell’s body. They later claimed to find blood seeped into the carpet of his former apartment that was a direct genetic match to Cowell’s.
In the run-up to trial, police depicted Wilson as someone obsessed with death and serial murder. Riesen tried but failed to introduce evidence that this formed a motive in Cowell’s murder, including a statement from a woman who said Wilson once choked her, testimony about his work history at Wenatchee Valley funeral homes and photographs of his Hannibal Lecter arm tattoo.
The defense led the questioning of jurors, again based on their answers to the form. One man wrote that he’d heard that Wilson “has a particular fascination with death” and “the dark arts.”
“I don’t think the jury is going to hear any testimony that Mr. Wilson is involved in the dark arts,” Bridges told the juror, and asked how his prior information might affect his judgment of the case.
“I would say anything that leans toward the dark arts, be it Ouija boards or any manner of thing — is that good or bad? My opinion is that it would be bad,” the juror replied. He characterized such practices as “diabolical.”
“The word ‘diabolical’ — I’m not criticizing you — is kind of strong,” Scanlan said.
“Yes, diabolical is bad. Angelic is good.”
He was excused from service.
Eight jurors were sent home in the afternoon session. One was removed after saying a not-guilty verdict might cause conflict with family members who believe Wilson committed the murder. Two were dismissed after saying their children went to school with Cowell, which would harm their impartiality. One woman said her granddaughter was a friend of Cowell and was deeply affected by her murder.
“I don’t think I could be fair,” she told the lawyers. “… I think of my granddaughter. She’s the same age bracket. It could’ve been her.” She too was excused.
One woman said she believed Wilson was probably guilty, but said, “I would like to hear his point of view as well.”
“What if he didn’t give a point of view?” Scanlan asked.
“I think that would be harder to say, wanting to hear his side of the story.” She was dismissed.
Questioning a seven-months-pregnant juror from the bench, Bridges asked if she was concerned that her pregnancy might be affected by seeing graphic autopsy or crime scene images during the trial.
“I don’t exactly know how to answer,” she said.
Bridges urged her to sleep on it. “You look like a healthy person, and I want your baby to be healthy too, and not be traumatized in any way.”
Most of those questioned said they’d read Wenatchee World articles about the case. Some said they had read inflammatory online comments — often referred to by the lawyers as “blogs” — accompanying those articles.
Prior to jury interviews, Bridges turned down several defense motions to suppress evidence, including a video shot inside his former apartment, the criminal history of a defense witness, and pieces of four recorded phone calls Wilson made from jail.
◼ Riesen will be allowed to show an iPhone video, taken by Wilson’s friend Tessa Schuyleman, showing the interior of the apartment at 118 Okanogan Ave. where police say Wilson murdered Mackenzie Cowell in 2010.
Played in court away from jurors Tuesday, the video was made by Schuyleman with her iPhone as Wilson apparently finished cleaning his studio apartment to vacate it. It starts in the building hallway and ventures to the main room, catching a glimpse of Wilson and an upright vacuum cleaner. Schuyleman documents the bathroom, then the main room again.
Midway through, Wilson passes the camera and asks Schuyleman, “Does it look clean?”
“Clean for … for what happening? Clean considering? Yeah, it looks clean considering,” Schuyleman says.
From there, Schuyleman videotapes part of the carpet and the heat register, then moves on to the kitchen, the pantry and stove. From there, the iPhone moves rapidly back to document a portion of the carpet, and the video ends.
Police claim the final shot of Wilson’s carpet captures the area where Cowell’s blood was found. Riesen said some fibers in that portion of the carpet appeared “burned or melted” when police sampled them for evidence.
Browne noted that the video shows Wilson in short sleeves, which may disclose the tattoo to the jury after Bridges ruled out its discussion.
◼ The jury may also see photos of Schuyleman, accused of abetting Wilson after the murder but never charged, which authorities say were taken by Wilson and show her posing as a corpse in the apartment — either on or near the carpet stain purportedly left by Cowell’s blood.
Scanlan argued that since Schuyleman won’t be called as a witness, she can’t testify to the significance of the photos, and police testimony about where she lay in relation to the carpet stain would be “extremely unreliable.” Riesen countered that Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective Dave Helvey diagrammed the apartment and would be able to chart Schuyleman’s location in the photos.
Bridges said the jury would have to sort out why Schuyleman was photographed lying on Wilson’s floor. “But assuming that Ms. Schuyleman was acting out the part of a body on that carpet, I think that’s relevant in this case,” he said.
◼ Browne and Scanlan had sought to suppress the criminal history of Elizabeth Ann Reid, a former police informant who claimed Cowell was murdered by two men other than Wilson. Instead, Bridges said he’ll allow Riesen to present the past convictions of Reid, who police say changed her story multiple times and proved unreliable.
Reid’s prior offenses include obtaining drugs by prescription fraud and forgery.
“This woman has no credibility, and we should be able to introduce all the evidence showing her lack of credibility,” Riesen argued.
Bridges agreed. “Her credibility is key to the whole thing,” he said. “… We’ve got this long, continued course of conduct with this woman lying.”
◼ Wilson’s calls with his mother Kathleen Zornes in late 2010 will also be admitted. Although Wilson does not admit guilt on the recorded calls, Riesen says his statements show “guilty knowledge” of the case.
“I never thought you were involved in this,” Zornes told Wilson by phone shortly after his arrest.
“… I can’t talk about any of the details of whether I am or not,” he replied.
Much of what Wilson said on the calls was inaudible in the courtroom Tuesday. In a later call, Zornes and Wilson discussed whether his former apartment would still attract renters after becoming a crime scene.
“If somebody dies in an apartment, it doesn’t mean anything,” Wilson said. “What if somebody dies of natural causes?”
Riesen called this an example of guilty knowledge. “The person that knows somebody died in that apartment is Mr. Wilson, and he makes that statement to his mother,” he said.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123