Jurors in capital cases face serious challenges

Jurors in capital cases face serious challenges

By Nicole C. Brambila, December 14, 2015

The jurors who sat through eight days of testimony this summer in a capital
trial for three homicides voted 12 times before reaching a sentencing
decision.

But even then, the unanimous decision for a life sentence rather than
execution for Michael A. Wilkins was reached for only one of the murders.
With the jury deadlocked on Wilkins’ culpability for the other two, Berks
County Judge Scott D. Keller sentenced the 41-year-old to three consecutive
life sentences.

Two jurors – a male and female who had never before served on a jury –
agreed to speak anonymously about a decision-making process that typically
remains behind the scenes.

Attorneys burned through more than 100 prospective jurors before agreeing
on 12 and two alternates. To be selected to sit on a capital trial, all
those designated had to agree they could sentence someone to death.

That would prove to be the easy part.

Detectives had collected a bevy of evidence – surveillance video footage,
fingerprints, shell casings, purchase receipts, eyewitnesses and more. But
deciding a man’s fate and arriving at a verdict – beyond a reasonable doubt
– isn’t as straightforward as the characters on “Perry Mason” or “Law &
Order” suggest.

The evidence presented in court, these jurors said, created an incomplete
and often confusing puzzle.

“It was one of the most stressful things I have ever done in my life,” the
female juror said, noting she lost sleep over the case. “It takes a toll on
you. You see stuff on TV and it’s nothing compared to you being there
experiencing it.”

The case itself was ghastly.

Wilkins – and his younger brother in a separate trial – stood accused of
the retaliatory killing of two drug dealers who had ripped them off, and
the torture and murder of a witness who was set on fire and her body
dumped. A forensic pathologist couldn’t determine whether Jennifer
Velez-Negron was dead before she was set on fire.

Authorities identified Wilkins’ brother in surveillance footage, where he
could be seen firing the fatal shots in the 1100 block of Franklin Street
in 2012.

The jurors retreated to a locked deliberation room, each with his or her
own opinion as to Wilkins’ guilt or innocence. Taking turns around the
room, everyone shared whether they thought Wilkins was guilty and why,
these jurors said.

The room boiled over with emotion, especially among the older jurors with
children and grandkids the victims’ age. Rafael Alequin and Dario McLemore
were both 22. Wilkins’ tortured girlfriend, Velez-Negron, was 26.

And then confusion set in.

If Wilkins was there but didn’t shoot and kill Alequin and McLemore, was he
still culpable, the jurors wanted to know. The female juror said they sent
notes to the judge asking for clarity.

Under Pennsylvania law, a defendant does not have to directly carry out a
murder to receive the same sentence as the one who did.

In the end, both jurors said, it just came down to what the law said.

Both jurors said it would have been easier had there been more footage. Or
DNA evidence. Or tested gunshot residue. Or any host of other evidence that
solves the crime in a 60-minute TV drama.

The male juror said at the trial’s conclusion, “It’s certainly a doozie of
a first trial.”

The jury deliberated a little more than five hours over two days, finding
Wilkins guilty of all three murders.

“I can’t imagine any other serious duty imposed by the commonwealth,”
Keller told jurors, who later thanked them for their service.

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