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July 29, 2008 -- Lima News (OH)

All-White Jury Seated In Cop's Shooting Trial

By Greg Sowinski

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

LIMA -- The community and other watchful eyes from around the nation will learn today the circumstances that led to a police sergeant shooting and killing an unarmed biracial woman during a drug raid.

Opening statements in the trial of Lima Police Department Sgt. Joe Chavalia will begin at 9 a.m. with Special Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh laying out the facts he believes proves the officer is guilty of negligent homicide and negligent assault in the Jan. 4 shooting death of Tarika Wilson inside her home at 218 E. Third St.

The facts of the case have been tightly guarded by police, state investigators, the prosecution and all involved, which has fed a fire of racial tension that put Lima in the national spotlight with visits from prominent black leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The Lima Police Department has been under a microscope since the 26-year-old Wilson was shot to death and her 1-year-old son, Sincere, who was in Wilson's arms, was wounded during the drug raid. The black community has been highly critical of police for the raid and the actions of many officers. Much of the criticism has accused officers in the almost all-white department of treating blacks poorly and showing little or no respect.

Jury selection was completed Monday after more than seven hours of questioning nearly 50 people called for jury duty. When it was done, an all-white jury was selected to consider the case, four of whom are men and four women. One black, a woman, was chosen as an alternate, as was a white woman. The black woman, however, will have no say during deliberations unless a juror is removed.

Two other black women had a chance to make the jury but were let go. The first woman was dismissed after it was learned Chavalia's attorney, Bill Kluge, represented one of her family members in another case.

The other woman, a local bar owner, was let go by Kluge during pre-emptive challenges, which allow each side to dismiss up to three potential jurors. Kluge, afterward, said he was troubled by her answers to questions about Lima police. The woman said she was treated poorly by police who appeared to not believe her when she reported a crime.

When the day began five of the 50 prospective jurors were black, or 10 percent, nearly matching the 13 percent of the county's population that is black. Potential jurors are drawn anonymously by computer from registered voters in the county.

One of the jurors is a retired teacher, another is a teacher while a third is a teacher's aide. At least four of the jurors are retired. One was a beautician and another was a library employee. One juror, a white man, refused to answer a question from Kluge on whether he planned to vote for Barack Obama or John McCain in the presidential election.

The black alternate works at a local nursing home while the other woman works for a cable television and Internet provider.

Eight jurors will consider the case because it involves misdemeanor charges, compared to 12 that sit on a felony case.

After selection, Kluge said he was "highly satisfied" with the panel. Strausbaugh declined comment.

Earlier in the process, Kluge told jurors Chavalia would take the stand to explain why he fired his gun at least twice. Some of Kluge's questions during jury selection were shaped around police procedure and whether people trust police officers more or less than the public.

Kluge asked each potential juror what he or she would do if police officers busted into his or her house saying they had a search warrant and ordered he or she to the floor. He also said that issue, as well as police procedure during a search warrant raid, would be carefully examined with several police experts testifying.

Kluge promised to produce experts who would say Chavalia did nothing wrong and only followed police procedure.

The question that was a key factor in determining whether to potentially seat a juror was whether he or she could consider the case fairly and hold the notion that Chavalia was innocent until proved guilty.

"Right now, in this courtroom, the rubber meets the road," Kluge said to potential jurors. "If you can't be fair, let me know. Look into your hearts."

Jurors also were asked how they felt about someone from another race. No one expressed discomfort or a dislike for other races.

Strausbaugh had several dominant questions including how jurors would perceive Wilson because she lived with a drug dealer who police were after when they raided her home. He asked to what degree police should be held responsible if they break the law and how much credibility they give police officers.

Numerous other questions were asked including whether anyone in the jury pool was convicted of a crime, whether they knew Chavalia, any of the attorneys, or a police officer. They were asked whether they had a drug or alcohol addiction.

The trial will go through Thursday this week and probably continue into next week. Jurors will be off Friday with the Allen County Common Pleas courtroom closed on Friday for summer hours.

Chavalia, 52, is one of the most senior members of the department with 31 years. He spent 22 years on the Special Weapons and Tactics team, part of that time as its commander. He also wrote the department's use-of-force policy. Chavalia is well respected in the department with a strong service record. He has remained on paid administrative leave since the shooting.

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