At the end of a long Monday of questioning by attorneys, 15 Bulloch County residents were chosen as the 12-member jury plus three alternates for the trial of Lee Allen Mayhew for murder and other charges from the shooting death of Bonnie Lanier Rushing and thefts at two Bulloch County homes in October 2020.
Superior Court Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. sent the jurors home shortly before 5 p.m. with instructions not to talk to anyone about the case or let anyone talk to them about it, not to research it or read anything about it and to return to the Bulloch County Judicial Annex, Tuesday, Jan. 31, before 8:30 a.m. Attorneys are expected to begin then or soon after.
While the jury selection for this trial was underway in one of the two upstairs courtrooms Monday, another jury was being chosen for an unrelated case in the other courtroom. For these two juries and potentially others, Clerk of Courts Heather Banks McNeal and her staff had sent summons to 400 Bulloch County residents, 142 of whom showed up Monday at the downstairs jury assembly room.
For the Mayhew case, Bennett had potential jurors brought up in groups of 14 at a time, and between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. four different groups were submitted to “voir dire” questioning, first by the judge, then by the prosecution and defense. So about 56 potential jurors went through this process. One or two more may have been substituted for others who were excused for reasons such as medical appointments or caregiver responsibilities.
‘By blood or marriage’
The judge handled the usual questions for basic legal qualification of jurors. Bennett asked any of the potential jurors to raise their hands if they were related “by blood or marriage, to the third degree,” to Mayhew or the lead prosecution witnesses – GBI Special Agent Tracy Sands and Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Prethenia Cone – or to Rushing or her widowed husband Mike Rushing, or another couple, William Joseph Sanford and Tamela Sanford, whose home was reportedly burglarized Oct. 22, 2020, the day before Bonnie Rushing was killed.
The judge also asked if jurors had “formed and expressed any opinion in regard to the guilt or innocence of the accused” and if they had “any prejudice or bias” on their minds “either for or against the accused,” and if their minds were “perfectly impartial.” These basic questions eventually led to two or three prospective jurors, from some of the four groups, being excused immediately when they acknowledged that they had expressed opinions or seriously doubted they could be impartial.
But the attorneys for the two sides took this type of questioning further, asking if anyone knew them or any of the attorneys on either side, or anyone else who works for the District Attorney’s Office or the Public Defender’s Office or in law enforcement.
Assistant District Attorney Casey Blount and Ogeechee Judicial Circuit D.A. Daphne Totten took turns, each questioning two sets of jurors. Assistant D.A. Jennifer Parker is working with them through the trial.
Circuit Chief Public Defender Renata Newbill-Jallow and Assistant Public Defender Elise Miller are Mayhew’s defense team. Instead of the jail uniform he was in last week for a pretrial hearing, he sat beside them Monday in a neat blue dress shirt and a gray tie.
Attorneys asked potential jurors if they knew the Rushings, or their sons, or Bonnie Rushing’s parents and grandparents, or her sister Pat Lanier Jones, a longtime employee of the Bulloch County government.
Another line of questioning by both sides, but with added emphasis from Newbill-Jallow for the defense, was whether jurors had read or heard anything about the case. Half or more of those questioned during the day acknowledged they had, from “media” or in conversations with friends, spouses or co-workers.
When asked to be more specific about “media,” several mentioned the Statesboro Herald, a few WTOC television or Grice Connect, and a few referred to stories shared on social media.
Newbill-Jallow noted that the Statesboro Herald had published two stories about the case last week. A few of the potential jurors said they had read a headline or enough to suspect that the case they were called for might be this one. One or two said they had read complete stories. Some said they only heard or saw something when Rushing’s death was reported more than two years ago.
Most said they could set aside anything they had heard and base their decision solely on the evidence to be presented in court.
The attorneys and judge agreed to a few strikes “for cause,” when prospective jurors cast serious doubt on whether they could be impartial.
But lawyers for each side also took notes toward the “silent strikes” process held at the end of the day.
By 4 p.m., enough potential jurors had been excused from the four groups who were questioned that 42 jurors remained available as “qualified.”
They were brought back into the courtroom together, and seated in the audience pews. The defense attorneys, with Mayhew, sat facing the jurors, as did the prosecutors at their separate table. McNeal then passed a clipboard back and forth between the two tables for the attorneys to take turns striking some jurors’ names and accepting others.
This continued, silently, for about half an hour until the 15 were identified. Their names were called and they were seated in the jury box. Of the first 12 named, six are women and six are men, of diverse ethnicity. The last three are two women and one man.