August 19, 2008 – More than 50 prospective jurors answered questions in federal court in Riverside on Tuesday about whether their views on the Iraq war would affect their verdict for a former Marine sergeant accused of crimes in combat.
By the end of the day, the federal judge and lawyers had questioned 54 members of the jury pool that reached nearly 100 and agreed on 12 jurors and two alternates.
The trial of Jose Luis Nazario Jr., 28, stems from accusations he took part in the killings of four unarmed detainees during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004.
The former Riverside police officer faces a maximum of 30 years in prison if convicted on the charges of voluntary manslaughter, assault with a dangerous weapon and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence.
Under a little-known 2000 law, Nazario is being tried in federal court because he had left the service before he was arrested a year ago. This is the first time a veteran has been tried for actions in combat in civilian court.
The trial is expected to last one to two weeks with opening statements scheduled for Thursday. The one-day break in the case will allow the copyright infringement trial between Mattel Inc., the creator of Barbie, and MGA Entertainment Inc., the creator of Bratz dolls, to finish.
In the brief opening statements made to the jury pool, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats said the fighting was bloody and fierce in Fallujah.
He said Nazario was trained to take prisoner the four men found during a house search.
“Instead he shot and killed and ordered members of his squad to shoot and kill these men,” Kovats said.
Defense attorney Kevin McDermott said the government has the burden to prove that the killings took place.
“Not only are you deciding Jose Nazario’s fate but that of many others,” he told the jury.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Larson asked each of 54 jurors a list of 14 questions.
He inquired whether they had heard about the case, whether anyone close to them had served in the armed forces and whether their views on the war in Iraq would prevent them from being fair and impartial.
Several prospective jurors said they are against the war and the strain it puts on the men and women who are serving. Many had friends and family serving or who had served. A few were veterans themselves.