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Brian Simpson murder trial gets underway

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of September 25, 2014)
: Accused murderer Henry Lee Jones with public defender
Alan Hunt.

After a day’s pause for the observance Thursday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the long awaited trial of Henry Lee Jones, charged with the 2011 murder of Central Beach resident Brian Simpson, is expected to finally get underway Friday morning.

Judge Robert L. Pegg, who presided over the questioning of prospective jurors that began first thing Monday morning, said he expected to have a jury in place by the end of the day Wednesday.

Of the first 100 prospective jurors questioned Monday, 58 were instructed to return for further questioning and 42 were dismissed.

A great majority of those questioned said they had read about the case either in Vero Beach 32963 or in the daily newspaper, and a number of those said they had already made up their minds about the guilt of Henry Lee Jones.

Still, prosecutors and defense attorneys, alike, questioned the dwindling numbers of eligible jurors to see if they could cast aside preconceived notions and possibly serve on the jury.

Chief assistant state attorney Tom Bakkedahl told prospective jurors that he was encouraged that they read newspapers, but told them repeatedly that “your verdict must be based solely on what happens here.”

More than a dozen of the prospective jurors said they either knew Brian Simpson, who was gunned down in his home after he walked in on a burglary in progress, or his widow Kristen, who had taught their children at Treasure Coast Elementary.

Some of them also said they knew the Simpson children, Scott and Samantha.

About eight prospective jurors said they lived on the barrier island and had closely followed the murder. If they didn’t know the Simpsons, they said, they knew someone who did.

Two said they had contributed to the fund-raising effort launched by Vero Beach 32963 that enabled Kristen to pay off the mortgage on the family home, which she almost lost after her husband was killed. One said she had helped raise money for that fund.

One of the prospective jurors said he knew defendant Henry Lee Jones, who sat at the defense table in a long-sleeved burgundy shirt and tie, flipping through questionnaires with his assistant public defender Alan Hunt. 

But, said that juror, the past association would not affect his verdict. As a result, he was included with the 58 people who were brought back for further questioning.

The 100 prospective jurors came from a wide range of ages and economic backgrounds. They ranged in ages from early 20s to mid-80s. They came from Fellsmere, Vero Isles and The Moorings. They stomped into the courtroom in muddy work boots and Ferragamo loafers.

Of the 100 jurors questioned Monday, four were African-American. One of the four was from Gifford and said she believed Jones was guilty.

Several times, public defender Hunt asked prospective jurors if they were open to letting the defense change their minds about quilt. But their “yes” answers made them ineligible to serve on the jury because the burden of proof must be on the prosecution to prove guilt, not on the defense to prove innocence.

At one point, Judge Pegg warned Hunt to quit framing his questions in a way that made prospective jurors divulge that they had wrongly shifted the burden of proof.   “The issue today is their prior knowledge, not the burden of proof,” said Pegg.

Throughout the questioning, Brian Simpson’s widow Kristen sat in a back corner of the courtroom with a box of Kleenex.

When prospective jurors spoke specifically about what they had read on the case – “I read Brian Simpson was shot twice through the bathroom door” and “I read Brian Simpson fell between the door and the bed” – Kristen’s head dropped and her body heaved.

During breaks, prosecutors frequently tried to comfort her.

After eight hours, Pegg said 92 more prospective jurors would be questioned Tuesday, and by Wednesday the questioning of those brought back would enable seating of a jury.