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Legally Speaking: Trial for missing child Jhessye Shockley begins

LISTEN: Monica Lindstrom - Jerice Hunter Trial Gets Underway

The trial of State v. Jerice Hunter commenced Wednesday in Judge Rosa Mroz’s courtroom.

The proceedings started with the court clerk reading the charges to the jury. Those charges are child abuse and murder under a theory of felony murder.

The state is alleging that in the course of abusing Jhessye Shockley, Hunter caused the death of her five-year-old daughter. The state is not seeking the death penalty, which could be the result of the fact that Shockley’s body has never been recovered.

Next came the reading of the preliminary jury instructions.

Promptly after reading these instructions to the jury, Judge Mroz turned her attention to the audience and politely, though curtly, told them that if anyone approaches any of the jurors they will be removed from the courtroom and not allowed back in. (Judge Mroz was also the judge assigned to the most recent proceedings in the State v. Debra Milke case.)

I can already tell this trial will not run into the same problems the State v. Jodi Arias trial did.

All seats in the South Court Tower courtroom were initially filled, though one person — Hunter’s father — had to be removed from the courtroom because he was chuckling during the state’s opening statement.

Even if his behavior was a result of his disbelief of the comments, his actions were especially offensive considering it was during the state’s explanation of what Shockley had allegedly endured.

The prosecutor went through a detailed timeline of the events that occurred before and after Shockley’s death, emphasizing what witnesses would be called and what their testimony would entail. The state focused on the alleged lies Hunter told the cops after she reported her daughter missing, and more importantly, the details that she failed to disclose.

The state’s opening also included the fact little Jhessye had been absent from school for a number of days prior to the missing persons 9-1-1 call.

Throughout her opening, prosecutor Jeanette Gallagher emphasized what the officers had done and why, possibly to take the wind out of the defense’s sails of the inevitable argument of shoddy police work. She explained to the jury that forensic evidence does have its limitations.

Lastly came the details of the intensive and lengthy search at the Butterfield Landfill that lasted 96 days and involved over 9,574 tons of garbage. Unfortunately this massive search failed to uncover any relevant evidence.

After the noon recess it was the defense that was able to finally address the jury. Lead defense attorney Candace Shoemaker started by telling the jury that there were two witnesses who saw Shockley the day the missing persons call was made and that one of those witnesses saw her taken by an unknown female.

The defense emphasized that before any of this happened there was a CPS investigation due to complaints it had received about Hunter and the result was that there was no abuse. She followed that up by explaining there is a tremendous amount of emotion involved in this case and they need to remember that when evaluating witness testimony.

Hunter’s attorney then discussed the key testimony of Jhessye’s older sister. She explained how Jhessye disappeared when her older sister was supposed to be watching her and that her sister’s feelings of guilt were strong. So strong that her guilt caused her to direct the blame somewhere else, namely onto Hunter.

Counsel touched on the testimony of the witness who allegedly drove Hunter to the apartment complex in Tempe where she threw away a suitcase in a dumpster while wearing plastic gloves. It is believed the suitcase contained little Jhessye’s decaying body.

Counsel told the jury to pay attention to this testimony as they will see that this witness’s timeline doesn’t make sense and that there was no evidence discovered to corroborate her story.

The defense ended its opening statement by simply stating the state’s case is completely circumstantial and Hunter did not kill her daughter. In fact, she still holds out hope Jhessye is alive.

This case captured the attention of Arizonans when little Jhessye went missing and it will no doubt continue to capture our attention.

We want answers, we want to know what happened, we want to know who is responsible. It will be up to 12 of the nine women and seven men sitting in the jury box to decide if the answer is that Hunter so abused her little daughter that she killed her.