More than 200 potential jurors were called into Montgomery County Circuit Court yesterday as jury selection began in the first trial of Timothy Joseph Buzbee, the 25-year-old land surveyor accused of several rapes in the county's Aspen Hill area.
Circuit County Judge Irma S. Raker began what is known as the jury voir dire, the lengthy task of questioning the jurors to determine whether their own knowledge of the case, or other opinions and experiences, would prevent them from reaching a fair and impartial verdict when Buzbee's first trial, in which he is accused of robbery, opens next Monday.
Before the voir dire began, Assistant State's Attorney Barry A. Hamilton announced that prosecutors had decided to drop the charges in one of their cases against Buzbee. Hamilton said the evidence was insufficient to try Buzbee on charges of an attempted rape and burglary that occurred last July in Rockville. Buzbee is accused of five other rapes and will be tried in separate trials on those charges. He has pleaded not guilty to all the crimes.
Montgomery County Jury Commissioner James A. Pearo called in the unusually large number of prospective jurors to give Raker, who will preside at Buzbee's first trial, a large pool of people from which to choose 12 jurors and two alternates. It is believed that the heavy publicity surrounding the Buzbee case could make it difficult to find jurors who the court feels can fairly decide the case.
Defense attorney Reginald Bours III went to great lengths before the trial to cut down on the press coverage of the case, maintaining that the publicity endangered Buzbee's chances for a fair trial within the county. Bours won an unusual order to close certain pretrial hearings to the public. But that order was overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals after three newspapers argued that it violated the public's constitutional right to attend those hearings.
Five hundred county residents -- the largest number ever summoned for a trial in the county -- were originally in the pool of potential jurors, but many were excused days ago from service because of job conflicts or other problems, according to Pearo. Pearo then took 95 jurors to hear the other civil and criminal cases on the court's calendar for this week. That left a pool of 237 citizens from which the jurors will be selected for the Buzbee trial.
Pearo said that about 120 citizens are normally summoned for jury service each Monday.
The last case to require a special jury call was the 1981 murder trial of James Arthur Calhoun, who was found guilty of killing a Montgomery County policeman during a robbery at a W. Bell discount store in White Oak. About 250 jurors were summoned for that case.
The questioning of the current pool of jurors could take several days. The prosecution and defense have requested that Raker ask nearly 60 questions of the prospective jurors, not only about publicity on the Buzbee case, but also on a wide range of other topics that could influence their decision in the case. Yesterday, Raker completed only a few of those questions.
Even if jurors have heard or read about the Buzbee case, it does not necessarily disqualify them from serving on the jury. The determining question is whether they already have formed any opinions about Buzbee's guilt or innocence.