Jury selection began Tuesday in the first capital murder trial to take place in Riley County since the death penalty was reinstated in 1994.
Luis Aguirre, 24, is accused of murdering ex-girlfriend Tanya Maldonado, 18, and their 13-month-old son Juan. Their bodies were discovered on Oct. 25, 2009 by a hunter in a shallow grave near Ogden, and Aguirre was arrested five days later in Texas, where he had moved after leaving Ogden.
Police have estimated that Maldonado and her son were killed in September 2009.
The state has argued in previous hearings that Maldonado and her son, both of Chicago, had become albatrosses for Aguirre, and that he intentionally and with premeditation murdered both of them.
Aguirre, represented by Jeffrey Wicks of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, has pleaded not guilty to capital murder for the combined deaths and not guilty to first degree murder for the individual deaths of Maldonado and Juan.
The trial will potentially have two phases. The first phase will be to determine whether Aguirre is guilty of capital murder. If the jury finds him guilty, jurors will then move on to the second phase, which will be to decide whether he should be sentenced to death or given life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The state emphasized that a death sentence will not be automatic if Aguirre is found guilty of the murders.
A panel of 18 potential jurors was interviewed Tuesday in the first effort to find 42 juror candidates. Starting Wednesday, two panels of 18 potential jurors will be interviewed until all 42 candidate slots are filled.
Once 42 juror candidates are chosen, both the state and defense will have the opportunity to strike 14, leaving the court with 12 jurors and two alternate jurors for the trial.
Before Tuesday’s interviews, potential jurors were asked to answer a questionnaire designed to, for one, provide clarity on their opinion of the death penalty.
Because Aguirre, if found guilty, could face the death penalty, potential jurors who passionately believe in or against the death penalty will be weeded out in favor of jurors who will take more of a middle ground in assigning either death or life imprisonment, if the trial should come to that.
Assistant County Attorney Barry Disney emphasized that jurors understand they could be voting to put a man to death. “It’s not an abstract thing,” he said.
Potential jurors were also questioned Tuesday on their availability and any bias in the case or whether they would begin the trial with the presumption that Aguirre is not guilty.
Opening statements in the trial will begin Monday, June 18, and Disney estimated that the first phase will last two weeks. He said that if the jury finds Aguirre guilty, the court will then reconvene after July 4 for another two weeks.
Judge Meryl Wilson is presiding over the case. Aguirre is confined to the Riley County Jail on $2.5 million bond.