Madison County Courthouse has high-profile murder trial, death penalty cases looming

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The Madison County Courthouse will in 2020, likely be the site for a murder trial of a Huntsville police officer and separate capital murder trials for a couple accused of killing five people.

That means, local residents, tabbed as jurors will decide their fates.

Veteran Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel, who has practiced law for 42 years, said lawyers handling high-profile cases start thinking about what kind of jury they want from nearly the moment they get the case. McDaniel said experience is especially helpful in selecting jurors. He said the lawyers are looking for clues on who will be able to consider the evidence, without bias. The lawyers use the written responses on the jury questionnaire and the would-be jurors' answers during voir dire, or jury selection

"You have 100 people in the jury room, 12 people are going to serve on that jury," McDaniel said. "And when the judge asks ‘Has anybody seen, read or heard anything about this case?’ If somebody hadn’t, you want to strike that person cause they’re not telling the truth."

The Madison County Court Administrator's Office will send out 450 jury summons during a regular trial week and more than 500 if a judge is hearing a high-profile case or a capital murder case. McDaniel says in Madison County that means a lot of scientists and engineers in the jury pool.

"You may or may not want an engineer," he said. "Engineers tend to be more likely to convict in a case. But if the state doesn’t have everything in line, if they don’t have everything just, boom, boom, boom, boom, they’ll find a person not guilty."

Huntsville Police Department officer William Darby's murder trial date hasn't been set, though it appears likely to be held in 2020. Jury selection will be crucial for both sides in a case that involves an on-duty shooting.

"The issue in any case where you’re representing a police officer or soldier, whatever, is the word reasonable," he said. "And juries may be more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to the police officer, the soldier, on that issue, were they reasonable?"

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Christopher Henderson and Rhonda Carlson in the killings of five people in New Market in 2015. They'll be tried separately. Henderson is set to go on trial in June 2020 while Carlson is expected to get a trial date this week. The cases involve an unusually high number of victims and that means two different juries will have to consider a lot of grim evidence, including details about the deaths of young children.

"A lot of times people, when they see, especially these real bad cases, you know, kidnapping, torture, murder, stuff like that ...," McDaniel said. "They hear what one human being can do to another -- they don’t get over that."

The Madison County Court Administrator's Office says jury summons go out three to four weeks before a trial date. They estimate that out of 450 summons issued about 12 percent of residents summoned fail to show.

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