Selection for jury members under way |

Selection for jury members under way

Johnson murder trial gets rolling in Fort Collins

Gary E. Salazar

— Jury selection for Thomas Lee Johnson got off to a slow start in Fort Collins Monday, but attorneys remain optimistic a jury of Larimer County residents can be selected by the end of today.

At 5 p.m. Monday, about 20 potential jurors had been eliminated, leaving prosecutors and defense attorneys with a jury pool of about 180 for the murder trial.

Despite the large number of potential jurors that remain, prosecutors and Johnson’s defense attorneys expect for a jury to be in place by the end of today.

“We have a very good chance of getting a jury tomorrow,” said Johnson’s court-appointed attorney, Norm Townsend.

Jury selection will continue this morning starting at 9 a.m. in a jury assembly room at the Larimer County Justice Center.

Prosecutors and Johnson’s attorneys are in the initial stages of selecting a 12-member jury and three alternates for the murder trial.

Johnson, 31, has been charged with first-degree murder for the slaying of Lori Bases. The 31-year-old woman was found dead in her Steamboat Boulevard apartment May 12, 2000.

Johnson allegedly stabbed the woman to death. Johnson is also charged with criminal mischief and trespass for allegedly vandalizing Bases’ sport utility vehicle about a month before the alleged murder.

Routt County’s only murder case was moved to Larimer County by Justice Joseph P. Quinn at the end of September. Quinn moved the trial from Steamboat Springs because pretrial publicity would make it difficult to select a fair and impartial jury in Routt County.

On Monday, 201 Larimer County residents from Fort Collins, Loveland and as far as Estes Park showed up for jury duty.

The morning was dominated by jurors filling out a questionnaire. Jurors were then dismissed at about noon for lunch.

In the afternoon, the jury pool gathered in a large jury assembly room.

Usually, jury selection takes place in a courtroom. But because of the size of the jury pool, the selection had to be moved to the assembly room.

“We are working with an unusual set of circumstances because of the number of people called,” Quinn said.

In the room, potential jurors sat in black chairs, which were padded with maroon seats and backrests. During the tedious process, some potential jurors read books or magazines or talked with others about the day of work they were missing.

The pool faced four large tables where Quinn, Johnson and the attorneys sat.

To the right of Quinn sat Johnson and his attorneys, Townsend and Eric Vanatta, a public defender from Fort Collins who is assisting Townsend.

Prior to Monday’s court hearing, Johnson usually had his hands in restraints and wore an orange shirt and pants. On Monday, a clean-cut Johnson was neatly dressed in a blue suit and his hands were free to look through stacks of paper.

To Quinn’s left sat 14th Judicial District Attorney Paul McLimans, Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James and Steamboat Springs Police Detective Robert DelValle.

At the start of the afternoon session, about 15 jurors were dismissed because they could not serve on the jury for three weeks because of economic or family hardships. Six additional jurors were dismissed based on answers given on the questionnaire.

At about 3:30 p.m., St. James began questioning 15 jurors that were randomly selected.

“This is a really strange setting,” St. James said to the jury pool. “I have never selected a jury this way. I know you are nervous and so am I.”

St. James questioned the jurors on many topics, including how they felt when they received the jury notice, what a murderer looks like and how they feel about drug use.

St. James asked the potential jurors if they had an opinion about recreational drug use, including cocaine.

“Should a recreational drug user have the right to be safe?” St. James asked each resident.

According to court records, drugs were found in Bases’ apartment.

St. James’ questioning of the 15 residents was suspended at 5 p.m. He is expected to continue when the selection resumes.

When St. James is finished, Townsend and Vanatta will get their chance to question the potential jurors.

Once the defense is done with its questioning, each side will have the opportunity to eliminate residents from the panel.

Seats that become open will be replaced by residents randomly selected from the jury pool. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will continue to question and eliminate jurors until they can agree on 15 residents sitting in front of them.

Once a jury is in place, the trial will start with opening statements.

The prosecution contends Johnson planned and intended to kill Bases.

Authorities claim Johnson killed Bases because she was interfering with his relationship with Kimberly Goodwin.

Johnson later married and divorced Goodwin, who was a good friend of Bases.

The defense will counter Johnson killed the woman in self-defense.

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