Buckman murder trial continues

Published 12:12 pm Wednesday, October 11, 2023

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Tuesday, October 10, 2023 was another revolving door day for jurors in the Wisezah Datawn Buckman murder trial in Manteo.

Prior to the entrance of jurors, defense attorney Christine Malumphy and Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett had a brief discussion about the content of questions asked.

Buckman is one of four persons charged with more than a dozen crimes related to the October 12, 2017 failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City. During that escape attempt, about a dozen state employees and inmates were hurt and four state employees at the prison were killed: correctional officers Veronica Darden, Wendy Shannon and Justin Smith and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe.

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Judge Tillett reminded Malumphy that questions about a person’s ability to follow law and be impartial are not a problem.

Malumphy replied that her team was floundering and struggling to find the proper questions and suggested Tillett provide a list of them.

He advised that he would not accept any invitation to limit questions that could lead to a claim of censorship, and that he will follow court cases that set out guidelines.

“You said over and over you are not interested in knowing if a juror will follow the law,” advised Judge Tillett. “But that is the issue. Any broad question to follow instructions and follow law is okay. Jury members have repeatedly said they would follow the law, it’s when you get into their feelings that is the problem.”

With one juror approved by both prosecution and defense, 11 others were escorted into the courtroom for questions from defense attorneys.

In contrast to questions from Assistant District Attorney Kim Pellini that were reasonably short and elicited yes or no answers aimed at following North Carolina law, Judge Tillett’s instructions and rule only on evidence in court, many Malumphy questions were much longer and more detailed at uncovering views, beliefs, feelings and opinions, both on a guilt or innocence verdict or on the death penalty.

Malumphy also spent much of the day repeating questions already asked with slightly different wording and digging deeper repeatedly until she gets something she can use to eject a juror.

With Buckman facing four counts of first degree murder and almost a dozen other felony charges, no doubt Malumphy is selective about each and every juror since Buckman is facing a possible death sentence if convicted.

A departure from earlier practice, where Malumphy was the primary defense team speaker, Raymond Tarlton took on the role of asking questions for a couple of jurors.

There was also a late afternoon report by Norlan Graves, chief general counsel for the N.C. Department of Adult Correction, that federal marshals are working on bringing Mikel Brady back to testify in court with no immediate confirmation that he will actually be here. Graves said he expected to have a more accurate update Wednesday.

By 4 p.m. it did appear a jury of 12 might be in place, although defense still has peremptory challenges available on the 12. An attempt to seat alternate jurors failed to produce any and at 5:25 p.m. all jurors were sent home with instructions to report back at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

With jury selection almost in sight, defense attorneys said they expect a trial to run about two-and-a-half weeks, similar to the earlier Brady trial that spanned 14 days.