HOULTON, Maine — Juror No. 2 has children the approximate age of one of the victims and feared she would lack impartiality. Juror No. 43 admitted discussing the case with another juror. Juror No. 5 was among 15 victims who survived an unsolved arsenic poisoning that killed a man in a New Sweden church in 2003.
Day two of jury selection in the Thane Ormsby triple-murder trial at Aroostook County Superior Court proceeded with careful deliberation on Thursday. Jurors were questioned individually to determine whether previous experiences with the law or inherent biases would prevent them from judging the case fairly.
By lunchtime less than half of the 118-member jury pool had been vetted. By 5 p.m., Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter had extended the day an hour and said that jury selection would continue Friday, with opening arguments occurring Monday. Twenty-four jurors remained for screening.
“You have had a long day,” Hunter told the assembly of jurors.
The 21-year-old Ormsby has pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder and an arson charge in connection with the deaths of Jeffrey Ryan, 55, Ryan’s son Jesse, 10, and Ryan family friend Jason Dehahn, 30, all of Amity, in 2010. They were found dead on June 22, 2010, about 27 hours after the killings at the Ryans’ home on U.S. Route 1.
Police said the victims were stabbed to death with a combat knife that Ormsby reportedly always carried with him before he took Ryan’s pickup truck and burned it with the aid of an accomplice. State police divers have found the knife, officials said.
Police said the defendant confessed to killing Jeffrey Ryan because he believed Ryan was a drug dealer. Ryan’s family has denied the claim, and a criminal background check on Jeffrey Ryan revealed no history of drug-related offenses.
Ormsby’s attorneys filed paperwork seeking to suppress statements that he made to police in June and July of 2010, claiming that his Miranda rights were violated. Hunter rejected the motion.
If a jury cannot be found, Hunter might move the trial to Caribou or another county. Defense attorneys James Dunleavy and Sarah LeClaire filed a motion claiming that the case’s extensive pretrial publicity has soured the area’s jury pool. Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, the lead prosecutor, has disagreed.
The defense’s pattern of questioning potential jurors through Thursday suggested that mental illness might be part of Ormsby’s defense despite his having been ruled competent to stand trial earlier.
The questions were based on two questionnaires totaling about 25 pages in which jurors noted their opinions on a variety of legal subjects. The questionnaires sought to determine whether pretrial publicity, inherent biases, or relationships with court officers or any trial witnesses would infect their perspectives.
Hunter stressed that he wanted jurors who would base their decisions solely on information from the trial.
Some jurors were excused from service because they seemed uncertain. None admitted to outright prejudice. Many seemed troubled by the responsibility of weighing guilt or innocence in a triple homicide.
Dunleavy and LeClaire repeatedly sought the removal of jurors when they indicated an inability to judge how mental illness might affect behavior.
Dunleavy sought to exclude a juror who said he would find mental illness “reasonable if they [defendants] were born with it.” But if “they used it as an excuse [for their actions], that would be difficult for me,” the man said.
Stokes objected to Dunleavy’s challenge, saying the man expressed himself as most laymen would. The man’s point was whether a defendant’s mental illness legitimately contributed to criminal activity. He did not express an inherent bias against mental illness, Stokes said.
Hunter allowed the juror to remain within the pool of jurors.
Stokes and Dunleavy agreed to excuse another juror for undue hardship caused by jury duty because the juror’s job paid by commission. Several times the man didn’t appear to understand questions and said he had sought legal advice from Dunleavy previously.
Many told stories of previous encounters with the legal system. Several had been acquainted with Ryan.
A woman who had been poisoned in New Sweden in 2003 remained in the pool after saying that she had met through that case several of the state police detectives who had investigated the homicides.
Almost everyone said they were at least somewhat aware of the case from newspaper websites and TV news.