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Maketa trial: 22 potential jurors already decided ex-sheriff was guilty

June 27, 2017 Updated: June 28, 2017 at 6:09 am
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Former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa waits inside of the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex on the first day of his jury selection for the trial on Tuesday June 27, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

Twenty-two potential jurors said they had made up their minds: Ex-El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa is guilty.

All were thanked for their service and sent on their way.

Roughly one-third of the 90 people called for jury selection Tuesday were dismissed on the opening day of Maketa's long-awaited trial on corruption charges, including those who said in pre-trial surveys that they couldn't be neutral.

Opening statements will be heard in 4th Judicial District Court once the field is narrowed to a panel of 12 jurors plus two alternates, a process that could take all day Wednesday or longer. Prospective jurors' impressions of Maketa and media coverage of the case against him dominated the questioning.

Jury selection started shortly after Judge Larry E. Schwartz shot down a renewed request by the defense for a change of venue.

In pressing to have the trial moved, one of Maketa's attorneys, Pamela Mackey of Denver, cited a flurry of recent news coverage and said 73 percent of jurors claimed some level of exposure to media accounts of Maketa, arguing the pool was "tainted."

Schwartz countered that the "vast majority" of those who filled out surveys had no strong opinion one way or another.

"I don't think we're there yet," the judge said in ordering jury selection to continue.

By midday, the defense asked the judge to restart jury selection after it emerged that the questionnaire contained a reference to an "attempted murder" charge. The judge called it a mistake and said all prospective jurors would be advised that the language was left from a previous mailing.

"We screwed up," Schwartz said as Maketa, seated at the defense table, shook his head gravely and shot a look to his wife, Vicki, in the gallery.

The trial phase is expected to last at least two weeks. There will be no court Monday or Tuesday because of the July 4th holiday.

Maketa, 51, was indicted in May 2016 along with two subordinates, marking a stunning new chapter in a saga that began when The Gazette published a story documenting complaints against him accompanied by a shirtless selfie taken by Maketa.

Maketa faces nine counts, though prosecutors have asked a judge to dismiss two of them - kidnapping and false arrest - in a last-minute request that has yet to be broached in open court. The alleged victim behind those counts, Kelli McMahan, formerly Trull, told The Gazette that prosecutors blamed proof problems and wanted to streamline the case to make it stronger. Two other counts against Maketa based on her complaint remain, she said.

The one-time county Republican powerhouse is accused of abusing his power during his turbulent third term in office ending in 2014, including threatening to cancel a $5.3 million jail health-care contract over what authorities have characterized as a personal feud - the basis for a felony count of extortion.

Maketa also is accused of coercing McMahan to recant her story, that her former deputy boyfriend committed domestic violence - accounting for two counts related to witness intimidation. He also faces charges of official misconduct, with prosecutors alleging that he pursued professional sanctions against three deputies or former deputies who crossed him.

During individual interviews with prospective jurors, a different side of Maketa's reputation surfaced, with several indicating their respect for his leadership during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

"I felt that he was a source of comfort and information," one woman said.

Said another: "He came to the forefront of Colorado Springs because of the way he handled that."

Many said they were skeptical of media reports or ignored them altogether.

"I try not to watch the news," one potential juror said. "It's too depressing."

Court will resume at 8:30 a.m., when the judge will hear arguments over several pretrial motions. It's unclear which will be taken up, however.

Questioning of people in the jury pool then will continue. By Wednesday afternoon, attorneys on both sides will be given the chance to exercise seven peremptory challenges each - dismissing jurors without explanation.

How attorneys use their get-off-the-jury cards can be a window into how they think and operate as they try to stack the panel for advantage.

Once a popular sheriff floated as a potential Republican gubernatorial candidate, Maketa arrived with two supporters Tuesday: his wife and former sheriff's Detective Mark Pfoff, who attended several of his pretrial hearings.

Maketa's co-defendants, former Undersheriff Paula Presley and former Cmdr. Juan "John" San Agustin, are scheduled for separate trials later this year. Both are on the list of potential witnesses for the defense.

The prosecution's witness list features a who's who of county sheriff's brass, including Sheriff Bill Elder.

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