http://pleasantonweekly.com/print/story/print/2011/07/29/sitting-on-another-long-jury-trial-but-not-caseys


Pleasanton Weekly

Column - July 29, 2011

Sitting on another long jury trial, but not Casey's

by Jeb Bing

While much of the country was riveted to the Casey Anthony murder investigation and trial in Florida, Pleasanton Rotarian Nancy Pennell was heading up a jury here in Oakland that also took months to select a jury and reach a verdict. But the outcome was much different.

Although Casey walked out of the Orange County, Florida jail July 5 after being acquitted of murdering her daughter Caylee, Pennell's jury, after five months of trial and deliberation, found Asmerom Gebreselassie and his brother Tewodros guilty in the killings of their sister-in-law, her mother and her brother on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

Both cases had a great deal of history and complicated data before reaching their juries. Caylee's remains were discovered in December 2008 with investigators pursuing various leads before arresting her mother. The Gebreselassie brothers denied their guilt, too, in what prosecutors said was a revenge killing that included a kidnapping, a $500,000 life insurance policy, a family member believed to be gay and cell phone records.

Having served on a jury, myself, and having watched and read the day-by-day reports of the Anthony trial, I can appreciate the concerns jurors had in finding the evidence conclusive enough to warrant the death penalty that the prosecutor sought. Pennell said that while there was no question that the three individuals in her jury's case had been shot to death, determining guilt became complicated because of distractions in the courtroom, including the defendants screaming and yelling at attorneys and the judge, multiple witnesses with varying stories, and long, emotional pleas and frequent trial delays.

Again, similar to the difficulties in securing a jury for Casey Anthony's trial, Pennell, who spent 17 weeks traveling most weekdays to the Alameda County Criminal courtroom in Oakland, said it took a month to select a jury as the Gebreselassies did what they could to delay the trial.

Eight different panels totaling about 500 people were called to serve as jurors, with Pennell's ordeal beginning last Jan. 13. Prospective jurors had to complete a 36-page questionnaire, with attorneys narrowing down the group to 150. She was selected as one of the two women and 10 men to sit on the jury, with five others chosen as alternatives on Feb. 7. Pennell then was selected jury forewoman and the trial started the next day. Jurors were told the trial, which ended May 31, would last about two months.

For her service, Pennell received $15 a day and one-way mileage. Apparently, she said, the county is only willing to reimburse you for your trip to the courthouse; getting back home is on your dime. She took BART, which gave her a break on costs even with the daily $1 parking fee and driving to the station early enough each day to secure a space. Jurors had a 90-minute lunch hour but were escorted by court personnel and could not discuss the case outside of the courtroom. Pennell is one of the community's most active public service volunteers, who is both well-versed and conversant on many issues and events. So those of us who know her also know how difficult it must have been to keep silent on a trial dubbed "The Thanksgiving Day massacre" until her detailed report at last week's Pleasanton Rotary Club meeting.

And the last few days were most difficult, Pennell told Rotarians. Although the jury found the Gebreselassie brothers guilty on each of multiple counts at 5:15 p.m., Thursday, May 26, the judge sent everyone home to enjoy the four-day Memorial Day weekend (at least for court personnel), delaying the reading of the verdict to May 31. Sentencing is scheduled for early August when Pennell and other jurors plan to make one last trip to the Oakland courtroom.

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