By JEFF SCHULTZ
A jury of up to ten men and six women will decide the case of the State of
Indiana vs. Dustin McCowan.
From those 16, twelve will be chosen later as official jurors while four
will remain as alternates due to the trial’s length, said Porter County
Superior Court Judge William Alexa after a five-and-a-half-hour jury
selection Monday afternoon by defense attorneys John Vouga and Nicholas
Barnes and prosecuting attorneys Matt Frost and Cheryl Polarek.
The trial is expected to last about three weeks or less since things are
already ahead of schedule with the jury being selected in one day instead of
Proceedings will continue Tuesday with one-hour opening arguments by both
sides on Tuesday afternoon.
Before selection began, Vouga restated a previously blocked motion that the
trial be moved out of Porter County, or at least out-of-county residents be
sought as jurors, after a front-page story about the case of Amanda Bach’s
murder appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana on Sunday.
The article sparked Vouga to raise objections saying that “any jury pool is
hopelessly tainted” if they by chance had read the content of the article or
had seen the headline, the timeline printed with it and pictures of McCowan
in handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit being led by Porter County
Sheriff’s Police officers. The article mentioned information about McCowan’s
cell phone which Vouga said is still “an assumption of record.”
Vouga argued that press coverage of the events has caused “a huge assumption
of guilty (for McCowan) in the community from the very beginning.” To allow
McCowan his right to a fair trial, Vouga asserted, the case must be tried
elsewhere just as he argued in August.
Alexa said that he and staff in his office had shared similar concerns when
they saw the article Sunday and discussed if it would have a negative impact
on McCowan’s constitutional rights.
Since the Constitution says those accused are entitled to a fair and
impartial jury, not to one where jurors hadn’t heard of a case, Alexa again
said he would not grant a venue change and instead would ask all jurors “to
reach a decision based upon what they hear from the witness stand and
Alexa said that the circulation of the articles have likely reached
residents living in other counties such as Lake, LaPorte, Jasper and Newton
citing the case has also been reported on by Chicago TV news stations.
“I think you are faced with the same question elsewhere,” he said.
The judge ended up granting a motion for separation of witnesses made by the
prosecuting team, a common ruling during trials to keep witnesses outside
the courtroom until they are called testify. The only exceptions Alexa made
were for the parents of McCowan and Bach who may be present throughout the
proceedings and could be called to the witness stand.
Vouga also argued that having a higher number of sheriff’s deputies for
court security was also prejudicial, but Alexa said he sees this case as an
exception due to some “battling verbally” between the two families.
About 60 picked-at-random juror candidates filled Alexa’s courtroom but just
37 were screened as the court reached its quota for the final jury panel.
Many walks of life were represented including carpenters, librarians,
secretaries, steelworkers, grandfathers, young mothers and self-employed
small business owners.
All jurors were Porter County residents. Most of them were from Valparaiso
or Portage. A few said they had been on juries before in Porter County or
elsewhere. Many of them mentioned they had children close to the age of Bach
and McCowan and a small number had said their children attended Portage High
School with Bach. All felt confident that they could tell if someone was
saying something to them that wasn’t the truth.
Alexa told each juror that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty
beyond reasonable doubt by the state and asked them to put aside any details
they may have heard beforehand.
“The only place you’ll hear the truth in this case is at the witness stand,”
the judge said.
Not seen, not heard
From the 60 or so prospective jurors who were asked by Alexa their knowledge
of the case, 13 said they had no knowledge of the case, saying that they do
not read newspapers.
Barnes asked each of the juror candidates of their degree of familiarity
with the case, asking everyone if they had read the news coverage and
specifically the one appearing in The Times on Sunday.
Most jurors said they had read the earlier newspaper articles about Bach’s
disappearance and death in September 2011 but their following of the case
had dropped off after that.
Those who admitted they have read and formed opinions from the articles were
nearly always one of the 21 candidates who were eventually excused. Two of
those said they already believed McCowan to be guilty. All of those who made
the panel said they would vote McCowan innocent if they had to deliver the
Others who had been turned away said that their work schedules would be too
Alexa ordered those on the jury panel to not read any new or old news
articles, web blogs, or Facebook pages relating to the case throughout the
trial and not to speak to anyone about it.
“Just because it is in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because it
is on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true,” Alexa said.
A clean-shaven McCowan wore a gray suit during Monday’s proceedings with a
buttoned shirt and tie instead of his jail jumpsuit.
PCSP officers stood outside the courtroom as no one was to be let in except
the prospective jurors and members of the media.
Sitting at the prosecution’s table was Det. Com. Jeff Biggs of the PCSP who
is the leading investigator in the case.
Jurors were told to report to the courthouse at 8:30 a.m. each morning
except for Mondays and Fridays when Alexa has his regular court calls in the
morning. The trial will commence at 1 p.m. on those days.