Jury selection begins in Richland nanny's manslaughter trial

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldApril 22, 2013 

Attorneys in a Richland nanny's manslaughter trial want to talk with 30 potential jurors about their knowledge of the case through the media or concerns with sitting on the panel for three weeks.

Kelli A. Jacobsen's trial started Monday in Benton County Superior Court in Kennewick.

The 28-year-old woman is accused of recklessly causing the death of Ryder Morrison by inflicting his injuries.

Morrison died June 22, 2011, while in surgery for head trauma. He had celebrated his first birthday the day before.

Jacobsen lived in the same home while helping to care for the toddler.

Of the 140 residents called to jury duty Monday morning for Jacobsen's trial, 116 showed up at the courthouse.

Jurors were asked to fill out a 12-page questionnaire that covered everything from their education, job and family life to their familiarity with social media, understanding of child abuse and use of a babysitter or other caregiver for a child.

After reviewing the first 80 completed forms, Prosecutor Andy Miller, Deputy Prosecutor Laurel Whittier and defense lawyer Scott Johnson agreed to excuse 31 people because they had a financial hardship or a strong opinion about the case.

One woman was let go because she is four months pregnant and wrote that she would have a hard time on this trial because it involves the death of a very young child.

Another woman who was released from the jury pool by Judge Vic VanderSchoor said multiple times in the questionnaire that children have a special place in her heart.

The attorneys didn't have any issues with 19 jurors and said they could return to court with the entire group, possibly this afternoon. The other 30 will be questioned individually this morning.

The court hopes to have a jury in place by Wednesday so attorneys can give opening statements Thursday and start calling witnesses.

Jacobsen is charged with first-degree manslaughter. The charge includes aggravating circumstances that the boy was particularly vulnerable, incapable of resistance and his death had a destructive and foreseeable impact on others.

She has maintained her innocence.

While the potential jurors were completing the questionnaires, the lawyers were in another courtroom arguing several motions that must be decided before any witnesses testify.

Judge VanderSchoor didn't yet rule on whether the defense can ask John Roberts if he told people that the toddler fell off the counter some time shortly before his death. Roberts was dating the young boy's mother, Tawney Johnson.

Miller argued that it is hearsay since Roberts would have heard it from someone else, but added that the witness has denied ever saying that to friends.

Attorney Johnson replied that the state may not like the evidence, but it doesn't mean it is inadmissible.

Also for the judge to decide is whether the defense can question the victim's mother about a five-day trip she took to Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in the days or weeks after Morrison's death.

Miller told the court that Tawney Johnson's mother and stepdad, boyfriend and friends encouraged her to go with them so she would stop reading and watching news reports on her son's death and the investigation.

A defense investigator reportedly found pictures on Facebook that show Tawney Johnson and Roberts jumping off a cliff at the lake.

Miller said the pictures are irrelevant in this case, and using them in an attempt to show the mother was not expressing "outward grief" would be taking the pictures out of context.

"If Tawney had 30 seconds of joy in that five days she was at Roosevelt lake and actually smiled while jumping off a cliff, I'm actually happy for her," Miller told the court.

Attorney Johnson said case law allows the defense to present evidence of what the mother did shortly after her son died, and leave it up to the jury to decide what it means.

VanderSchoor said, "It seems to me that it's not relevant," but added that he will wait to rule until after he has read the related documents filed by the lawyers.

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