Tough jury selection ahead in Lester trial
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Monday marks trial day one for Shawn Thomas Lester, the man accused of using a scoped rifle to fire the deadly accurate shots that killed three people outside of separate Kanawha County convenience stores in 2003.
Prosecutors and Lester's defense team now begin the likely turbulent task of selecting 18 impartial jurors -- 12 regular jurors plus six alternates -- to sit on the panel for the six weeks the trial is expected to last.
Lester's lawyer, Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle, has asked Judge Duke Bloom twice to move the trial out of the county based on what he calls a "present hostile sentiment" that members of the hundreds-strong jury pool have expressed in their mail-in questionnaires.
"Guilty as hell," one prospective juror responded, according to Castelle's recent motion for change of venue. "Hope he gets life with no mercy."
"I feel the defendant should receive the death penalty ASAP," another juror wrote. "My tax money should not be supporting this slime."
"From all the coverage I've heard, I think he's guilty," another said. "Everyone I talk to thinks he's guilty."
In all, 427 jurors said in their responses that they had been moderately to heavily exposed to media coverage in the case, with 81, according to Castelle, appearing to express an opinion of Lester's guilt.
Last week, Bloom denied Castelle's motion to move the trial out of county, but later issued a gag order after a local news station aired a jailhouse interview in which Lester denied any role in the slayings. The order prevents Lester, his lawyers, prosecutors, family members of both Lester and victims, and the hundreds of witnesses associated with the trial from speaking to the media until the jury reaches a verdict.
For nearly a decade, few details of the circumstances that may have led to the deaths of Gary Carrier Jr., Jeanie Patton and Okey Meadows Jr., have found their way to the public light but for the intermittent revelations that authorities have allowed since Lester's arrest last year.
Theories originally circulated that the shootings were random, a copycat response to the sniper shootings in Washington, D.C. in 2002, which were carried out by John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo.
Investigators now believe that Lester killed Patton, Carrier, and Meadows because the three were involved in a conspiracy to steal an engine block out of Lester's garage in Campbells Creek. Rare, pink methamphetamine belonging to a Mexican national named Gilberto "Tito" Lopez-Reyna was reportedly hidden in the engine block. Investigators have been unable to track down Lopez-Reyna.
On Aug. 10, 2003, at about 11 p.m., Carrier, 44, of South Charleston was shot outside a Charleston Go-Mart on 722 Bigley Ave. while he was talking on the phone.
Four days later, at about 10:25 p.m., Patton, 31, was gunned down as she was pumping gas outside a Speedway gas station on Campbells Creek Drive. Less than an hour later, and about 10 miles away, Meadows, 26, was shot outside a convenience store in Cedar Grove.
At the time of the shooting, police believed that the shooter, whom witnesses described as a "heavyset man with a mustache and goatee" had been driving a full-sized, dark colored Ford F-150 pickup truck.
"The truck had been [parked outside the Go-Mart] about 20 minutes, and moved from one end of the lot to the other, where it drew attention," Chief Kanawha County Deputy Phil Morris told the Gazette in 2003. "Something just didn't seem too right about that pickup."
A witness told police he was certain the shots fired at Meadows came from the truck. As soon as that shot was fired, Meadows dropped to the ground and the vehicle sped away. Police believed that the shooter picked off his victims at distances varying from 60 to 70 yards, according to previous Gazette reports.
Castelle has said that the criminal case against Lester has yielded a staggering 75,000 pages of documents, the equivalent of 52 copies of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," not to mention the thousands more digital files.
Based on the volume of the investigation alone, it appears clear that the killings were precisely coordinated.
Meadows' father, Okey Meadows Sr., alluded to that theory of coordination when police arrested Lester last year. No one knew what time his son was leaving his girlfriend's house on the evening of Aug. 14. No one knew he was going to stop at the gas station.
"They would have had to have been a well-organized machine to have that happen, and I just don't think these guys were smart enough or organized enough," Meadows said.
Reach Zac Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.