HOLTON — Seven women and five men will decide at the end of this week whether Jacob Ewing sodomized a 13-year-old girl in a case so well known in this small town that attorneys struggled to find jurors whose minds are not made up.
Monday, the first day of the trial, was devoted entirely to jury selection, which began when 142 prospective jurors arrived shortly after 8 a.m. and lasted until the list was whittled down to a dozen jurors and two alternates after 4:30 p.m.
Ewing, 22, is charged with aggravated indecent liberties and aggravated criminal sodomy with a child under 14 years old and has pleaded not guilty. This is the first of several trials for Ewing, who also faces rape charges.
When special prosecutor Jacqie Spradling asked the prospective jurors whether they know Ewing or the Ewing family, most hands shot up in affirmation. About half of the 142 had known the Ewings for at least a decade.
“If I prove to you that Mr. Ewing had sex with a 13-year-old, would you be able to find him guilty?” Spradling asked repeatedly.
Answers differed wildly. One man said “it would be very hard” to find him guilty and was excused accordingly. Another said, “If she steps out and looks like she’s 18 years old, that’s on her. That’s just how I feel about it.” Another questioned how, if the sex was consensual, one of the two can be imprisoned.
A man said he was leaning toward a not guilty verdict because the alleged victim’s father should have kept a closer eye on her. One woman said, “It would definitely bother my conscience to judge another person.”
At times, the process derailed into debates over law. Why is a 13-year-old able to testify but not able to give consent for sex, one man asked. Others questioned the alleged victim’s home life and said that would be a factor in determining the veracity of her claims.
About half of the 142 prospective jurors had read about the case in newspaper reports; nearly as many had heard about it on Facebook.
“It’s a close community. This is a community that’s had a lot of discussion on social media,” Spradling said.
The prospective jurors crowded into Jackson County’s only large courtroom, which quickly become muggy and hot. Fans were turned on at Judge Norbert Marek’s request. When that failed to cool the room, attorneys and jurors fanned themselves with paper as well.
The sexual nature of the case, as well as the age of the alleged victim, led several of the prospective jurors to request an excusal, to no avail. Several flinched or winced as Spradling made reference to the prosecution’s accusations.
“This is a case that’s going to come down to this: (The victim) says he put his penis in her butt. He says he did not,” Spradling told the court.
Through their questioning, Spradling and defense attorney Kathleen Ambrosio hinted at the evidence that will be presented this week. The trial is expected to last through Friday.
A prospective juror with a degree in psychology was asked by Ambrosio whether he would be biased in favor or against a psychologist who will testify. The man indicated he could be impartial. Spradling asked whether any jurors would think less of an expert who has made television appearances. No one raised their hand.
“This case has no forensic evidence,” Spradling said, asking whether that would prevent anyone from reaching a guilty verdict. Again, no hands were raised.
Ambrosio took issue with several prospective jurors who wrote in response to a questionnaire that a child would not lie about sexual assault. When questioned in-person, most said they were referring to a much younger child, not a teenager. Some told the attorney they had previously believed Ewing is guilty but could now act impartially.
One of the dozen jurors chosen is a mother of four who wrote that a child should be believed until proven to be lying. After questioning from Ambrosio about the burden of proof and Ewing’s presumption of innocence, the woman said she believed she could be impartial, despite her earlier response.
Ambrosio removed one prospective juror after she claimed Ewing was guilty based on what the woman had read in the press. Another was removed after stating her belief that anyone arrested for a crime is almost certainly guilty.
Ambrosio worked to find jurors who believe a 13-year-old can describe a sex act in detail without having taken part in it. She asked repeatedly about sexual imagery in the media and how young people today know more about sex than those of previous generations.
Ewing, in a light blue shirt and dark blue half-Windsor knot tie, aided in his own defense, taking notes during Ambrosio’s questioning and indicating his opinion of prospective jurors.
The trial will continue Tuesday morning with opening arguments from Spradling and Ambrosio, followed by days of testimony.