Selection of jury intensifies in white supremacists' trial

PEGGY HARRIS
Associated Press Writer
Published Wednesday, March 03, 1999

LITTLE ROCK -- The judge and lawyers in the trial of two white supremacists who allegedly tried to overthrow the U.S. government through gun trafficking, armed robbery, and murder are giving potential jurors a grilling on fairness, racism and the death penalty.

Of an initial 925 people on the jury pool for the trial of Chevie Kehoe of Colville, Wash., and Danny Lee of Yukon, Okla., 250 remained in the pool on the first day of trial Monday. But only 27 have been formally dismissed over the first two days of the proceeding.

"I think we're making some progress, but it's a little slow at this point," U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele told one woman in asking her to return to court later this week after she was questioned Tuesday about her views on the death penalty.

The judge dismissed potential jurors for hardship reasons or because they said they have problems with some elements of the case, including the racist overtones, the murder of a young child, and the possibility the jury might have to decide whether to sentence the two men to death.

Twelve people will be seated on the jury and six will be selected as alternates. The trial may take three or four months. The prosecution has a list of 271 witnesses.

Kehoe and Lee, both 26, are accused of committing numerous crimes in several states, including Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Idaho and Washington, in their alleged plan to set up the Aryan Peoples Republic in the Pacific Northwest. The two planned to practice polygamy to build their population, prosecutors say.

Crimes associated with their alleged plot include an April 29, 1996, bombing of the Spokane, Wash., City Hall; Feb. 15, 1997 shootouts with Ohio police; the murders of two people in Idaho; and the murders of Tilly gun dealer William Mueller, 52, his wife Nancy, 28, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell.

Prosecutors say Kehoe and Lee robbed Mueller around Jan. 11, 1996, of guns and other valuables, stunned him, his wife and his stepdaughter with electric rods, duct-taped plastic bags over their heads, duct-taped rocks to their bodies, handcuffed them and threw them in the Illinois Bayou near Russellville. The bodies were found by a fisherman June 29, 1997. Sarah had a 69-pound rock duck-taped to her body.

"I would expect there to be some gruesome testimony," Jack Lassiter, an attorney for Lee, told potential jurors. "There may be some photographs."

Lassiter asked if they could consider the facts impartially including evidence related to the slaying of a child. The judge dismissed five women who said they would have trouble being impartial in a case involving a child's murder.

Mark Hampton, an attorney for Kehoe, also questioned potential jurors about the racist overtones of the case.

"There's going to be a lot of talk about race, about bias, about bigotry and about prejudice in this case," he said.

"The government's witnesses are going to be people who own up to racist beliefs. The defense witnesses have racist beliefs," Hampton said. "They are not going to be pleasant to talk to."

He suggested that pride in one's heritage was acceptable and said he assumed that black members of the jury pool were proud of their heritage. One black man in the pool nodded in agreement.

Hampton asked the potential jurors if they could set aside their feelings about racism and judge the defendants only on the facts presented about their actions.

One young black man said he would have trouble giving the men a fair trial because of the racist overtones. He said he felt biased against them. The judge thanked him for his candor and dismissed him from jury duty.

During individual questioning about the death penalty, Cathleen Compton, an attorney for Lee, asked potential jurors if they considered child abuse, mental illness or alcoholism as excuses people make for wrongdoing.

"I feel like our society is breaking down," one woman said. "Somewhere there has got to come, if we are to survive as a society, that we take responsibility for our actions."

Even so, the woman said she could consider both sides and would not automatically impose the death sentence if the two defendants were convicted.

However, one woman was released from jury duty after telling the judge she believed it was God's decision to give or take life.

Kehoe's father, 50-year-old Kirby Kehoe of Yaak, Mont., was a co-defendant in the case and has pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge. He has not yet been sentenced.

Chevie's younger brother, Cheyne, 22, of Colville, Wash., was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

In Ohio, the brothers were charged in shootouts with police near Wilmington. One of the shootouts was captured on a police car videotape and broadcast nationwide.

Cheyne Kehoe was convicted by a Ohio jury and sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison. Chevie Kehoe pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon, felonious assault and attempted murder. The judge deferred sentencing until the Arkansas case is resolved.