By Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE — After nearly three weeks of questioning dozens of potential jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys on Thursday chose nine women and three men to hear the case of an Arizona inmate who escaped from prison and is accused of killing a retired couple who was traveling through New Mexico.
John McCluskey is the last defendant to face federal carjacking and murder charges in the 2010 deaths of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla.
The jurors during the selection process were warned that the case could last as long as four months and they may have to consider possible punishments of either life in prison or the death penalty if McCluskey is convicted.
The panel, which includes four Hispanics and one American Indian, was chosen from a pool of 68 candidates.
Just hours before Thursday’s proceeding, McCluskey’s attorneys filed a motion challenging the makeup of the pool, saying it underrepresented minorities.
The defense repeatedly challenged prosecutors’ decisions to dismiss some of the candidates during the proceeding, alleging that prosecutors were making their decisions based on race. In each case, the judge dismissed the challenges after prosecutors pointed to the prospective juror’s views on the death penalty or their lack of understanding of the judicial process.
“We have used a process to score these jurors throughout,” said prosecutor Michael Warbel, explaining that the system was based on the candidates’ answers to lengthy questionnaires and individual interviews before the court.
A review shows ethnic minorities made up nearly two-fifths of the pool.
Prosecutors planned to respond to the motion, and it was not immediately clear whether a hearing would have to be scheduled for U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera to consider the matter before opening statements begin on Aug. 19.
McCluskey was one of three prisoners who escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz., in July 2010, with the help of his cousin and fiance, Casslyn Welch. One of the inmates was quickly captured after a shootout with authorities in Colorado, while McCluskey, Welch and inmate Tracy Province embarked on a crime spree that sparked a three-week nationwide manhunt.
Province and Welch pleaded guilty last year to charges stemming from the Haases’ deaths and both face life sentences. They are expected to testify during McCluskey’s trial.
Prosecutors have said the Haases were headed to Colorado for an annual camping trip when they were targeted for their truck and travel trailer after they stopped Aug. 2, 2010, at a rest stop near the New Mexico-Texas state line.
Court documents said the fugitives forced themselves into the Haases’ truck and ordered the couple, at gunpoint, to drive west on Interstate 40. They eventually exited onto a lonely two-lane road and stopped.
McCluskey was alone with the couple inside the trailer when gunshots rang out and the Haases were killed, according to court documents.
After the shootings, the fugitives drove the Haases’ trailer to a more remote spot, unhitched it and set it ablaze. Investigators found the Haases’ remains among the charred debris. Gone were the couple’s truck, money and guns.
Province was captured days later in Wyoming, and McCluskey and Welch were taken into custody at a campground in Arizona.
After being questioned by federal agents, McCluskey said he shot Gary Haas once and Linda Haas three times.
Defense attorney Gary Mitchell told one panel of potential jurors that McCluskey did not kill the couple nor did he intend for them to be killed.
McCluskey, who is facing 20 counts in connection with the Haases’ slaying, was previously serving 15 years in Arizona for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm.
Dressed in a tie and suit jacket, McCluskey has watched each day of jury selection.
He has made no secret of his desire to steer clear of a trial and the death penalty. He agreed to plea negotiations earlier this year, but federal prosecutors said they were intent on moving toward trial.