MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Prosecutors and defense attorneys on Monday began jury selection for Mobile County’s first death penalty hearing since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Markeise Kardell Caldwell, 29, of Mobile, is accused of killing his then-girlfriend’s 4-month-old baby. He faces charges of capital murder and serious child abuse.
The last death penalty case tried in Mobile County Circuit Court was Christopher Knapp in 2018 in a case that also involved the death of a young child. A jury convicted him, and a judge accepted the jury’s recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March 2020 and the severe restrictions on the court system that followed. For part of that time, the justice system suspended jury trials. When the trials resumed, they did so under rules intended to limit the jury’s proximity to each other and to others in the courtroom.
The Caldwell trial is a significant milestone, Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Keith Blackwood said.
“This is really, you know, one of the last things back to the court system that really gets us back to what we can call normal before the pandemic,” he said. “We have not been able to review these cases for a variety of reasons.”
One of the key obstacles, Blackwood said, is that death penalty cases require a much larger number of potential jurors than a typical case. Getting people to show up for jury duty has been harder during the pandemic.
In addition, for a time the jury was spread out around the courtroom rather than grouped in a jury box. That was a social distancing measure meant to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, Blackwood said.
“They were away from the action in the courtroom,” he said. “When we tried the case, they were behind us. And so it was, you know, very difficult in a room this big with a jury that was splitting up to actually present a case.
Caldwell’s attorney, Jason Darley, agreed that hearing a capital case under the circumstances would have been problematic.
“It would have been very difficult,” he told FOX10 News. “People… would be more shy. You wouldn’t want to come on jury duty. And then other things, people wearing masks tended to hide their faces when critical points of the questioning were being conducted. So I think you needed to be in a situation where people could be crammed into a small space again.”
Jury selection could take all week. In a capital murder trial, the courts typically set up a panel of about 100 people, which is larger than average. After a pause on Tuesday, attorneys will begin questioning these prospective jurors on Wednesday with the aim of finding 12 jurors and several alternates who say they would be able to impose the death penalty if the facts warranted .
Some people have no moral objection to the death penalty under any circumstances. Unlike most other trials, attorneys interview prospective jurors individually.
Once the trial itself begins, prosecutors will present evidence of Kendrick Cole’s death in May 2018 at his mother’s home. Prosecutors allege that Caldwell was at his home and banged his head against the floorboard of a bed.
Just before police took him to jail, Caldwell told reporters he had been drinking too much.
“I screwed it up really bad. … I need to get my mind back in order because I’m mentally gone,” he said.
Caldwell said he wanted people to know that his actions didn’t reflect his character.
“By the world y’all, I’m not that person,” he said. “I really am not. I have allowed myself to be spiritually weak in my faith. And I also hurt someone I love. And I treated it like my own.”
Attorneys on both sides of the case declined to discuss the evidence on the eve of the trial. But a defense file offers a clue to the defendant’s possible strategy. Caldwell’s attorneys wanted to ask potential jurors a series of questions about their religious beliefs, including whether they believe prayer works or can affect outcomes, and their belief in angels and evil spirits.
The defense argued in a court filing earlier this month that “religious issues are critical and necessary to the facts at issue in the Caldwell case.” But Mobile County District Judge Jay York denied the motion, except for two questions, about how religious they are and whether they watch or listen to religious programs.
Not only will it be the first post-pandemic death penalty case, but also the first capital homicide in Mobile County under new rules created by a 2018 law prohibiting judges from overturning jury decisions on the death penalty. Previously, the court still handed down a death sentence, even when the jury recommended a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This happened more than 100 times nationwide from 1978 to 2016, according to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative.
The pandemic caused a significant backlog of criminal cases in Mobile County. Blackwood, the chief assistant to the prosecutor’s office, said the courts have been trying to eliminate it all year.
“We’re on track to double the number of juries this year compared to pre-COVID 2019,” he said. “We’ve had non-fatal capital homicide cases that we’ve tried, and now this is something of the first capital punishment case where every party in the criminal justice system is comfortable going to court.”
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