CLEVELAND – Prospective jurors were introduced behind closed doors Friday to a man charged with killing 11 women and dumping their remains around his property and home.
Anthony Sowell, 51, said a single word, "Hello," according to court administrator Greg Popovich, who apologized for keeping the jury orientation secret.
Sowell is accused of luring vulnerable women, often homeless or living alone and battling drug or alcohol addictions, to his home and attacking them. Prosecutors say he killed 11 of the women and hid their bodies in his home or buried in the yard.
The bodies were found after police went to arrest Sowell in October 2009 on a sexual assault allegation. He has pleaded not guilty and faces the death penalty if convicted.
The meeting between potential jurors and the defendant, a standard prelude to jury selection in criminal cases, was a surprise.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Dick Ambrose previously had said the case would begin Monday in his courtroom. Instead, the 300 prospective jurors gathered on another floor Friday to meet the defendant.
The meeting happened as reporters covering the case waited on another floor for trial credentials and a briefing by Popovich on an unspecified topic.
Popovich said security was a key concern, but he wouldn't specify if there had been threats made in the case.
Sowell was brought to the jury orientation under tight security and wore a polo shirt and slacks, according to Popovich. During past proceedings, he had worn standard jail outfits with handcuffs and leg manacles.
According to Popovich, Sowell and attorneys in the case were introduced to prospective jurors. The two sides agreed to skip the reading of the indictment, saving two hours and getting a happy response from the prospective jurors, Popovich said.
The prospective jurors filled out a 32-page questionnaire on their familiarity with the high-profile case, and 200 were randomly selected by computer to return in groups of 30 beginning Monday to be questioned about their views, Popovich said.
Asked whether the secret start had denied the public and media the opportunity to see Sowell size up his likely jurors and vice versa, Popovich said that chance would come Monday. He said he appreciated concerns about open court proceedings and offered to pass along those comments to the judge, who wasn't available for comment.
Mike Benza, a defense attorney and visiting professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said introducing the defendant and summarizing the charges went beyond routine jury orientation.
"It starts to look like a part of the formal jury selection process," Benza said.
Unless there were security or safety issues that weren't disclosed, he said, that type proceeding "is not something that can be closed to the public."
It wasn't clear whether assistant prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in the case objected to the secrecy. The judge issued a gag order Thursday barring them from making any comment outside court.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said Friday that he's determined to get the death penalty.
Mason told The Associated Press that he wouldn't discuss whether he has ruled out a last-minute plea deal that would spare Sowell from a possible death penalty.
But, Mason added, "I can say this: Out of the 12 years that I've been here, this is the most appropriate case for the death penalty, and we will be seeking the death penalty."
"We're going forward with the trial," he said.
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