Prosecutors say Russell, 26, shot 27-year-old Sollohub in the head during a foot chase on Aug. 24, 2011. Sollohub succumbed to his injuries 24 hours later in a Birmingham hospital.
Jury selection began Monday morning at the T.K. Davis Jr. Justice Center in Lee County. In February, Calhoun County Circuit Judge Brian Howell granted a motion to move the trial to Lee County in order to find an unbiased jury with limited knowledge of the case.
Russell, who was previously held in the Etowah County Jail, was moved to a facility in Lee County on Friday. The defendant was present during the selection process.
At 10 o’clock, 111 potential jurors came to the courtroom and by midmorning their number was whittled down to 88. Several potential jurors were released on work or childcare-related excuses.
Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh asked the potential jurors, who were split up into four panels throughout the day, whether they were opposed to the death penalty. McVeigh also gave jurors the opportunity to tell the court whether they felt they were incapable of judging someone for religious or philosophical reasons.
“I want a jury to care. This is the most important case going on anywhere in this state. I need you to reach down in your souls and say if there’s anything that’s going to distract you from 100 percent of your attention,” McVeigh said to one panel.
Russell’s attorney, John Robbins, asked potential jurors if they served as police officers or have family and friends who worked in law enforcement. He also asked those on the panels if they owned firearms, regularly shot target practice and believed someone could be accidentally shot.
“The allegations are that Joshua Russell intentionally killed him. Can you put aside your personal feelings? How you feel about police officers. Can you be fair to Joshua Russell?” Robbins asked.
One potential juror questioned Howell on why the trial had been moved to Lee County. Howell said it was because he’d made the decision to move the trial. The man persisted and asked if it was because Russell could not get a fair trial in Calhoun County. Shortly after, the man said he did not feel comfortable with Howell based on his interaction with the judge.
“What I feel about the case is immaterial because it’s the jury that decides what the true facts are. My only role is to make sure the case is tried properly. Outside of that, I have no interest in the case,” Howell told the man.
The potential juror then asked if Howell would determine Russell’s sentence, to which the judge replied “if the defendant is found guilty, yes sir.”
Later, Howell and the attorneys discussed whether the man’s questioning had tainted the entire jury panel. McVeigh asked if the rest of the potential jurors on that panel should be individually questioned after the man’s outburst.
“I really don’t think it rose to the level of tainting the whole panel,” Howell said. “The jury knows why we’re here. They know why we’re in Lee County. I think to draw more attention does more harm than good.”
Robbins agreed with the judge.
McVeigh described the entire situation was “an oddity.”
“I’ve only seen one other time where a juror became outwardly confrontational with the court,” he said.
Three potential jurors were excused after they said they could not, under any circumstances, recommend the death penalty as a punishment. Russell, if found guilty, faces death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Another potential juror was excused because she had prior knowledge of the case. The woman told the court she had watched news reports and read online details about the case. The woman said she’d also participated in a discussion on capital murder Monday afternoon with other potential jurors.
By 5:45 p.m., attorneys had 81 potential jurors to choose from, known as striking.
“Eighty-one is probably the largest panel I’ve ever struck from in my legal career,” Howell said.
The striking process took a little more than an hour and the attorneys agreed on a jury comprising five men and nine women. Howell instructed the jurors to avoid reading articles about the case in the newspaper, researching or discussing the case.
Opening arguments are expected to begin this morning in Lee County at 9.
Staff Writer Rachael Brown: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RBrown_Star.