At least 200 potential jurors will be called up next month for the trial of a Yankton man charged with second-degree murder for allegedly killing and dismembering a Yankton woman.
Stephen Robert Falkenberg appeared Friday in First Circuit Court at Yankton for a motions hearing. He is charged in the death of Tamara (Tammy) LaFramboise, with investigators believing he then drove her body to Michigan.
The jury selection and trial are scheduled for Jan. 9-24 at the Yankton County Courthouse and Safety Center in Yankton. If convicted of the Class B felony, Falkenberg could receive life imprisonment and a $50,000 fine.
Authorities allege that Falkenberg had an altercation with LaFramboise at her Yankton apartment in the early morning hours of March, 2019. He allegedly pushed her, causing her to strike a wall and hit her head.
According to court documents, the prosecution alleges Falkenberg admitted he knew LaFramboise was deceased. He then allegedly loaded her body in his pickup and fled to a family member’s farm in Michigan.
After arriving on the farm, the defendant allegedly dismembered LaFramboise in an effort to avoid her identification, according to court papers. The location of LaFramboise’s body parts remains unknown.
The 46-year-old Falkenberg appeared at Friday’s hearing with his defense attorneys, Clint Sargent and Raleigh Hansman. The prosecution was represented by South Dakota assistant attorneys general Doug Barnett and Brent Kempema. Barnett appeared in person, while Kempema participated by telephone. First Circuit Judge Cheryle Gering presided at Friday’s hearing, which resolved a number of remaining issues before the trial. The current schedule calls for each trial day to run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break and recesses during the morning and afternoon.
Gering emphasized the need to call up enough members of the jury pool in order to ensure the seating of a 12-member jury and two alternates. The jurors will be drawn from the pool for the first six months of 2020.
In order to ensure an adequate number of jurors, Gering ordered the widening of the jury pool. The initial number would be reduced for the “voir dire” phase, in which both sides can challenge and remove potential jurors from consideration for the final panel of 12 jurors and two alternates.
In terms of jury selection, Gering reported the court had received inquiries from some potential jurors about the scheduled trial dates. Those individuals said they had definite or potential conflicts with pre-planned activities, particularly with the anticipated length of the trial.
Gering would allow an individual to be excused from jury duty only if both sides agreed to it. Otherwise, the person would remain in the jury pool with the possibility of removing them during voir dire.
During Friday’s hearing, another major area of discussion focused on whether the defense intends to call into question the background and character of LaFramboise and any witnesses. The prosecution had filed court documents in the matter, and the defense had filed a response.
During Friday’s hearing, Gering and the attorneys discussed the discovery of facts and the disclosure of what each side intends to present and ask during the trial.
The state had filed a motion for the defense to provide notice and discover as it pertains to SDCL 19-19-404 (Rule 404(a)) evidence.
“Character evidence is generally inadmissible, therefore, if the defense intends to attack the character of any state witness, the state respectfully requests that the Court require the defense to provide the state with notice as well as the specific legal authority it believes such evidence is admissible,” the court document said.
During Friday’s hearing, Barnett raised concerns about what he considered possible “bad mouthing” of LaFramboise and witnesses during the trial in order to discredit them.
The assistant attorney general requested the court vigorously exercise its “gatekeeping” role. He asked that Gering bar the introduction of what could be considered irrelevant and disparaging questions and character references during the trial.
Barnett also questioned the impact that such a line of questioning would have on court proceedings, particularly the trial’s flow and length.
In response, Gering said a witness’s criminal history or other specific acts are excluded from the trial proceedings unless the court decided to include those facts and backgrounds.
Sargent raised questions on whether pre-trial rulings and exclusions would prevent bringing up what the defense considers crucial information and in turn hamper Falkenberg’s defense.
In addition, Sargent said court precedents exist for allowing the introduction of information on victims and witnesses into the trial proceedings as part of the evidence. The prosecution can raise objections during the trial, if it chooses, he added.
Any issues can be addressed at that time, Sargent said.
Gering noted she may need to send the jury out of the courtroom while the court addresses issues concerning witnesses, their personal backgrounds and lines of questioning. She expressed concerns about the impact of multiple recesses during the trial.
In the end, Gering denied the state’s motion for a blanket pre-trial exclusion. Specific issues can be addressed during the course of the trial, she added.
The state has also filed a motion seeking a court order prohibiting the defendant from introducing any evidence or advancing any arguments or suggesting a third party was involved in this case without proper notice and a pre-trial hearing.
Gering set a Dec. 19 hearing to deal with the jury selection another other remaining issues.
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