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Sun, Dec. 08

Judge rules out two aggravating factors in Kennedy murder case

Steven DeMocker

Steven DeMocker

A Superior Court judge ruled that the prosecution can use three out of five aggravating factors in the possible death penalty phase of an upcoming murder trial for a Williamson Valley man accused of bludgeoning his wife to death.

Prosecutors contend that Steven DeMocker, 55, beat his ex-wife, Carol Kennedy, to death with a golf club on July 2, 2008. DeMocker claims that he is innocent and that he was riding his bicycle on a trail at the time of the murder.

Deputy County Attorney Joseph C. Butner III had argued at an earlier hearing that DeMocker should receive the death penalty if convicted of Kennedy's murder because of five aggravating factors: a burglary charge; cruel, heinous or depraved actions; that it was a cold and calculating crime; financial gain; and for allegedly killing a witness.

In issuing his decision Monday, Judge Thomas B. Lindberg found there was no probable cause to charge the factors of cold and calculating or with killing a witness. Prosecutors had theorized that DeMocker, a stockbroker, might have killed Kennedy to prevent her from testifying against him for the IRS.

John Sears, DeMocker's defense lawyer, said afterward that he was "heartened" by the ruling, but added that it was just one of many "procedural" decisions the judge must make prior to the May 4 trial.

Butner declined to comment.

On Wednesday, Sears asked Lindberg to allow lawyers to screen the jury pool for the upcoming trial with a questionnaire before questioning by the lawyers.

The questionnaire, which would go to the potential jurors in groups of 50 over four days in April, would determine if they faced undue hardship by serving on the jury, had already formed an opinion about the case because of extensive pretrial publicity, or were strongly in favor of or strongly opposed to the death penalty. The court would summon about 450 people.

"What we're trying to accomplish is to narrow and focus," said Sears. It would save time for the court, lawyers and possible jurors if those people can be eliminated. The questionnaire also might avoid a last-minute motion for a change of venue if too many possible jurors proved familiar with the case.

Joseph Guastaferro, a jury consultant based in Atlanta, Ga., who is helping the defense, told Lindberg that people tended to be more honest when filling out the questionnaires.

But Butner argued that it was easier to tell if someone was being candid by interviewing them in person.

"Here in Yavapai County, in my experience, we've selected a death penalty jury in about a week," Butner said. "I feel we are over-extending and over-complicating the process. This is Yavapai County. We've somehow managed to get along here for a long time with doing things in a simple, straight-forward fashion."

Lindberg, however, said that he might allow a questionnaire and asked Sears to bring in a sample when the hearing resumes Dec. 17.

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