ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Jury selection began Monday for 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 deaths of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla. The Haases were headed to Colorado for an annual camping trip when they were targeted for their truck and travel trailer.
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 will seek the death penalty if McCluskey is convicted.
McCluskey was brought into the courtroom before the first group of 12 prospective jurors entered for questioning Monday morning. After being unshackled, one of the members of his legal team helped him put on a tie and then he slipped on a black suit jacket. With his graying hair slicked back, he whispered to his attorneys at times and watched intently as prospective jurors were questioned about their views on everything from the television show “CSI” to the presumption of innocence, the death penalty and opinions about the U.S. Justice Department.
Defense attorney Gary Mitchell also asked potential jurors whether they had any feelings about being impartial and fair in hearing the trial of a person who was a felon. 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.
“The defense boils down to this … No. 1, Mr. McCluskey did not kill the victims in this case. No. 2, he did not intend the victims be killed,” Mitchell told the first panel of prospective jurors.
By midday, prosecutors and the defense had already dismissed a couple of potential jurors.
Jury selection is expected to last up to three weeks. U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera indicated the trial could last up to four months.
McCluskey 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.
The trial was also delayed earlier this year while McCluskey was treated for an undisclosed medical condition that resulted in weight loss and left him physically and mentally weak.
The charges stem from a carjacking that took place 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.
The fugitives drove the trailer to a more remote spot, unhitched it and used liquor they found inside to set it ablaze. Investigators found the Haases’ remains along with three bullet casings 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.
McCluskey’s attorneys have implied that they plan to present evidence that he has a mental defect or disease. They have indicated in court filings that they might call to the stand a forensic neuropsychologist who performed clinical tests on McCluskey. Some of the tests assess a person’s planning ability and could be used to show lack of intent.
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