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Retrial of accused killer of island man off to a slow start

Photo: Murder defendant Jones with one of his public defenders in court.

The second murder trial of Henry Lee Jones got off to a slow start this week when Chief Assistant State Attorney Thomas Bakkendahl and Assistant Public Defender Dorothy Naumann, who is representing Jones, spent the opening morning going over jury questionnaires while potential jurors waited outside the courtroom.

The questionnaires were prominent because they contained questions about racial bias – Jones is black and the man he is alleged to have murdered was white – and Jones’ first conviction for murder was overturned because the judge did not allow his lawyer to ask potential jurors if they had racially prejudiced views.

When 75 potential jurors were finally admitted to the courtroom for selection, 38 of them told Circuit Judge Dan Vaughn they had biases that made them incapable of rendering an impartial verdict, or else knew a witness in the case.

Thirteen of those 38 were quickly dismissed. The opposing attorneys then spent the afternoon continuing to question some of the remaining potential jurors.

“We’re going to ask the 22 people that said they know people [involved in the case] to stay for additional questioning,” Bakkendahl said during a brief afternoon court recess. “We’ll ask Judge Vaughn to dismiss the other jurors for the rest of the day.”

Jury selection in the case was scheduled to conclude on Wednesday, but could last longer if attorneys need to request more potential jurors, said Assistant State Attorney Stephen Gosnell. Opening arguments were tentatively scheduled to begin on Thursday.

The proceedings began in circumstances unfavorable to Jones after Judge Vaughn last week dismissed two motions by Jones’ attorney to exclude potentially damaging evidence from the trial.

Jones is accused of killing Brian Simpson during a 2011 burglary at the Central Beach resident’s home. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2014 and received a life sentence. According to testimony at his first trial, Jones shot Simpson after he and an associate got caught inside Simpson’s Fiddlewood Road house.

But Jones, now 30, was granted a second trial in 2017 after the fourth District Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.

This time the court allowed Jones to include eight race-related questions in a questionnaire that was mailed to potential jurors in advance. The questions are worded in a way that seeks to find out if a juror might be prejudiced towards African-Americans. The initial jury pool of 75 people included only seven African-Americans, two of whom asked to be dismissed because they knew witnesses in the case.

Jones, who served as his own attorney for most of 2018, will face a difficult challenge during his new trial. In a pretrial motion filed last year – intended to show that the killing of Simpson was not premeditated and thus could not be first-degree murder – Jones stated:

“When the victim returned home, the defendants attempted to retreat through the bathroom window. The victim initiated the attack which prevented the defendants from leaving. This led to the victim’s death.”

This misstep – which came close to an admission of guilt – was one of several Jones made during an eight-month period in 2018 when he insisted on representing himself, and it could provide state attorneys with a golden opportunity to use Jones’ own words against him during trial.

Vaughn last week denied a request by Naumann to wipe Jones’ self-incriminating statement from court records and keep it from being entered as evidence during trial. Naumann was appointed to represent Jones in December when he changed his mind and decided he needed a lawyer.

Vaughn also rejected Naumann’s request to rule out the use of data from a cellphone photo taken during an accidental “butt-call” by Jones that placed him near the scene of the murder on the night the murder took place. Naumann had argued that the phone’s GPS data was not reliable.