Opening statements to begin in Wells' capital murder trial

By Sylvia Hall - bio | email

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - A jury has been selected, sworn in and sequestered in the capital murder trial of Moss Point teen Darwin Wells. Opening statements are set to begin at 8:30 Wednesday morning.

Wells is the accused gunman in the October 2008 slaying of 44-year-old Michael David Porter, who had stopped at a Conoco gas station on Highway 63 in Moss Point to ask for directions to his grandson's football game. Now 16, Wells was 15 years old at the time of the murder.

Of the 99 potential jurors, 75 told authorities they had prior knowledge of the case. Consequently, each of the 99 potential jurors was interviewed individually as part of the jury selection process.

Circuit Court Judge Dale Harkey asked each potential juror where they had heard about the case, whether they had had conversations about the incident, or if they had already formed any opinions as to Wells' innocence or guilt.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence asked each of them, "Do you think you could be fair or impartial if you were selected to serve?" Most of them said they could, but others hesitated.

Public Defender J. Brice Kerr asked many of them if there were any "expressions of hostility or anger or hatred" in the conversations they had had about the incident.

Applause rang out from outside the courtroom as the last potential juror was called around 11 Tuesday morning, ending a day and a half of individual interviews.

Wells' attorney, Public Defender J. Brice Kerr, made a motion Tuesday for a change of venue, after the interviews were completed. He called the heavy media coverage and hype surrounding the case "phenomenal" and something he's "never seen before."

"The majority either said, 'I got a problem,' or 'I know a bunch of people who were upset about this,'" Kerr said.

He said he believed many people had very "visceral feelings" about the case, or "feelings of the gut."

"It's very clear they're not anywhere close to the kind of jurors that we need," Kerr said.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence objected the motion, saying he doesn't believe changing the venue would change the jurors' reactions to the facts of the case.

"People are outraged over this case, and they should be shocked over this," Lawrence said. "The facts are bad."

Lawrence counted 80 jurors who said they could be fair in deciding the cased based on the evidence presented.

"I think you would have the same problem wherever you go," Lawrence said.

Circuit Court Judge Dale Harkey denied the motion, saying although he had never seen anything like the vast media coverage and public knowledge of this incident, he didn't believe past reports would sway the jury.

"The tenor of the coverage was noticeably absent of any ill-will," he said.

Harkey also said the general public knowledge of the case has always been "singed with sympathy" for the victims, the accused and the community.

"I am taken by the fact that, to the person, they recall the facts of this case simply because of the facts of this case," Harkey said.

"I am not convinced that the perception of any jury verdict here would be met with any feeling of unfairness," he said.

Several potential jurors were dismissed early Tuesday afternoon.  All who remained were asked questions by the prosecution and defense.

By the end of the day, 14 jurors were chosen and sworn in, eight men and six women.

Three other teens are accused in this case. They are Terry Hye, Jr, Telvin James Benjamin, and Alonzo Kelly. Two adults, Melody Jones and Faith Gibson are charged with accessory after the fact.

Porter's family has also filed a wrongful death suit in civil court as a result of Michael David Porter's death. That suit is against the owners of the Moss Point Conoco where the Porters stopped, and other nearby business owners. The complaint accuses the business owners of failing to provide proper lighting and reasonable security on the premises, and allowing youths to loiter on the property. The suit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, for a total of $10 million.

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