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Jury selection starts for Lucas County sheriff's trial

Dressed in his usual black uniform, Lucas County Sheriff James Telb stood face to face Tuesday with some of the men and women who could decide his fate on criminal charges.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys began the laborious process of seating a jury — 12 jurors and four alternates — for the Nov. 1 trial of the longtime sheriff and three of his employees on charges relating to the 2004 death of Carlton Benton, an inmate at the county jail.

Mr. Benton's death was initially attributed to natural causes, but a revised ruling issued in April by the Lucas County Coroner's Office declared Mr. Benton's death a homicide caused by asphyxia resulting from a so-called sleeper hold.

Three days have been set aside in U.S. District Court for jury selection, and, if yesterday was any indication, it could take all of that.

During what is known as voir dire, attorneys questioned some individual jurors for 20 minutes or more, prompting Judge David Katz to remind them to keep things moving. The trial itself could take three to five weeks, the judge told prospective jurors.

Sheriff Telb and Capt. Robert McBroom, an investigator with the Internal Affairs Department, each are charged with one count of making false statements and misprision of a felony, or the cover-up of a crime.

John Gray, a retired sergeant, and Jay Schmeltz, a retired deputy, each are charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law, two counts of falsification of a document, and one count of making false statements. A second charge of deprivation of rights under the color of law — which is filed against law enforcement officers who allegedly violate a person's civil rights while acting in their official capacity — was filed against Mr. Gray. He is accused of choking Mr. Benton and causing his death.

Tuesday, the four co-defendants — Sheriff Telb in uniform and the other three in suits — sat quietly behind the long row of attorneys representing them while prospective jurors gathered in the courtroom first as a group and then for individual questioning.

Two women whose husbands were current or former law enforcement officers were asked repeatedly about their ability to be fair and impartial in light of the fact that the defendants are law enforcement officers. One, whose husband is a retired Toledo Police officer, insisted she could not be impartial, while the other, whose husband is a Hancock County sheriff's deputy, said she believed she could set aside her feelings about his job.

Some prospective jurors with medical conditions — one with heart disease and another with a history of seizures — were asked if they could set aside their own personal experience and knowledge because there would be testimony during the trial from experts about Mr. Benton's medical condition.

Not all of the questions were directly related to the defendants' case. Many were the same queries posed to any jury pool — do you understand the defendants are presumed innocent? Would it bother you if the defendants exercised their right to not take the witness stand? If the government proves the elements of the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt, could you return a guilty verdict?

Prospective jurors also were shown an extensive list of potential witnesses and asked to circle the names of any who were familiar to them.

Before beginning individual interviews, Judge Katz laid out the general facts of the case for each pool of nine or 10 prospective jurors, explaining it was a criminal case arising from the 2004 death of Mr. Benton, an inmate at the Lucas County jail, and that all four defendants are current or former employees of the sheriff's office.

He told them the indictment alleges Mr. Gray deprived Mr. Benton of his Constitutional rights by using excessive force and by “deliberately failing to seek necessary medical care for Benton which resulted in Benton's death.”

Mr. Schmeltz is charged with depriving Mr. Benton of his rights by using excessive force resulting in bodily injuries, and both Mr. Gray and Mr. Schmeltz are charged with writing false reports and making false statements to the FBI about what happened.

Sheriff Telb and Captain McBroom, the judge said, are charged with “suppressing information relating to the circumstances surrounding Benton's death and with making false statements to the FBI.”

At the time of the inmate's death, Mr. Benton was charged with a crime but not convicted, the judge said, adding, “He thus enjoyed the same presumption of innocence as the defendants in this case.”

Jury selection is to resume Wednesday morning.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.

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