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Jury is seated in Ostling case; former LA police detective, prison warden dismissed from jury
TACOMA - After a morning of interviews on their willingness to serve and their ability to be impartial - which included questions on whether police generally abuse their authority, if police are properly trained to deal with the mentally ill, and if officers who testify in uniform should be given greater credibility than civilians - a federal court judge seated the eight-member jury in the civil rights trial in the shooting of Doug Ostling.
Ostling was shot by a Bainbridge Island Police Officer Jeff Benkert at his family's home on Oct. 26, 2010 after officers responded to a 911 call that Ostling had placed. Investigators said Ostling, who was 43 at the time, came at two officers with a double-bladed ax after they knocked on his apartment door to ask about the 911 call.
The Ostling family filed a civil rights lawsuit against Benkert last year, and the suit also named the city of Bainbridge Island and Police Chief John Fehlman.
Fehlman was not in court Monday; the city's attorneys said he had been hospitalized the night before with pancreatitis and would not be able to attend much of this week's proceedings.
Stressing that Fehlman was an essential part of the defense for the city, attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton to consider a delay in the start of the trial.
Leighton quickly shot down the request.
"We don't have the luxury of time in this case," Leighton said. "We just don't have any time where we can delay this proceeding.
The trial is expected to last 11 days, and the judge said he wanted it to wrap up before the start of June.
"The chief can join us when he can," Leighton said.
"Come hell or high water, we are going to get this case done by the first," he said.
The judge then interviewed 32 potential jurors, asking where they lived, about their employment and their interests.
The jurors selected include a Graham man who works for a stair-cycle company, a retiree from Orting, a pastor from Kelso, a young nursing student who is currently working as a housekeeper, a former American Airlines pilot from Port Townsend who now works for his wife's textbook company, a retired bookkeeper from Ocean Shores, a woman married to a retired Marine Corps officer who referred to herself as "Mrs. Colonel," and a retired federal who lives in Tacoma.
Potential jurors who were eliminated from consideration included a retired Los Angeles police detective who lives on Bainbridge Island and has investigated officer-involved shootings in the past; a woman with a nephew with mental health problems who she said was treated harshly by police after his arrest; a former prison warden who was a police officer in Oregon and Hawaii; and a woman whose husband works for the Washington State Patrol.
Another potential juror was dismissed after he admitted he would not be able to remain unbiased in the case and was prejudiced against the police.
"I went to school in Chicago in the '60s and experienced street crime of two varieties," he said. "Some of it was police brutality."
"I think my politics were formed there and haven't changed significantly over the years," said the man, a Vancouver resident who works in a native plant nursery.
When the judge asked if the man could set those feelings aside and base a decision on the facts in this case, the potential juror said he couldn't.
"It's a challenge I don't think I am up to," he said.
During questioning from the bench, another woman recalled seeing news coverage of improper behavior by Seattle Police.
"You see it on your TV. Some of it has been very graphic. And very heartbreaking," she said.
"It's certainly been a discussion at our family table," she added.
She was also cut from consideration.
The small courtroom was filled with prospective jurors at the start of Monday's session.
Three members of the Ostling family attended, and watched from the balcony.
Opening arguments were scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Monday.