Jury selection in the murder trial of Stephen Robert Falkenberg began Thursday in Yankton.
Falkenberg is charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of Yankton woman Tamara LaFramboise last year.
Under the direction of Judge Cheryle Gering, defense attorney Clint Sargent and prosecutor Brent Kempema began the preliminary examination of the first of at least four panels of jurors Thursday morning.
Two more panels of jurors are expected to be examined today (Friday), with the possibility of a fifth panel Monday. The Monday panel would be comprised only of jurors who were late or missed their assigned screening sessions.
Due to the large number of jurors being examined — over 200 — prosecutors requested the opportunity to take a group photograph of each panel to avoid having to call jurors back for final cuts and selections.
The court expects to notify jurors of final selections either tonight or Monday afternoon. The trial will require a final panel of 12 jurors and two alternates to proceed.
Gering began Thursday’s proceedings by outlining the jury selection process and South Dakota law on juror responsibilities, emphasizing that jurors are expected to find a person guilty only if they are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.
She read the legal definition of reasonable doubt for the jury: “A reasonable doubt exists when a factfinder cannot say with moral certainty that a person is guilty or a particular fact exists. It must be more than an imaginary doubt, and it is often defined judicially as such doubt as would cause a reasonable person to hesitate before acting in a matter of importance.”
Later in the proceedings, Kempema went into more detail with jurors about the differences between a reasonable doubt and a shadow of a doubt or absolute certainty, calling to mind the popular criminal procedural dramas on television.
Jurors are required to follow the law, he said, and prosecutors must only convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Another important legal issue central to Sargent’s examination centered on the legal notion that the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Arrest, criminal charges and a trial do not constitute guilt in the eyes of the law and should not prejudice a juror, he said, adding that at no point is the defendant required to prove his innocence.
Potential jurors should be able to mentally bestow the status of innocence to a defendant at the start of a trial and only allow evidence presented in court to influence their opinion, he said.
Jurors were questioned as to whether they could stand seeing some of the more disturbing evidence that will likely be presented during the course of the trial, including the fact that LaFramboise had been dismembered.
Sargent asked that jurors be able to consider the dismemberment separately from other evidence, while Kempema stressed that jurors should not become angry with the prosecution for presenting upsetting evidence.
Kempema emphasized that the victim, who in this case struggled with drug addiction, is entitled to be protected by the law and is also entitled to an impartial jury.
To keep the jury impartial, he said, his team does not acknowledge them outside the courtroom, or even smile at them.
Gering explained that any contact with jurors or potential jurors threatened the impartiality the trial, even if that contact consists of mere pleasantries or a “Hello.” Any such contact, she said, would be treated as inappropriate until after the jury is released.
Anyone, especially those inside the courtroom, who approaches a juror risks being held in contempt by the court, she warned.
The trial is expected to begin Monday or Tuesday and last until Jan. 24. On those days, the court will be in session from 9 a.m.-5 or 5:30 p.m. with one break from noon-1 p.m. Due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, court will not be in session on Jan 20.