Originally created 01/27/01

Wise trial begins today



BEAUFORT, S.C. - Opening statements begin today in Aiken in the death penalty trial of Arthur Hastings Wise, a day after attorneys agreed on a panel of 12 jurors and three alternates from Beaufort.

Fifteen Beaufort County residents - nine women and six men - were seated after a weeklong interviewing process in a Lowcountry courtroom. Six agents with the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division immediately bused the jurors to an Aiken hotel, where the panel will be sequestered during the trial's duration.

Mr. Wise, 46, is accused of killing four workers and wounding three others at the R.E. Phelon Inc. parts plant in Aiken in 1997. Phelon officials said he had been fired two months before the killings for being aggressive with a supervisor.

The jury that will decide his fate includes a social worker, a farmer, a golf pro and a substance abuse counselor. The members of the panel range in age from 18 to 63.

The jury pool was formed when 300 were summoned for duty, but that group was quickly whittled down to 84 after many were excused for various reasons and others were not needed immediately. Of the 84, 39 were qualified through extensive interviews. Anyone who was opposed to the death penalty was disqualified.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys then agreed on the final 15 on Friday, using a limited amount of strikes to reject those they thought might not favor their side.

"I'm not concerned about the race or the gender of the jury, just the fairness of the jury," said defense attorney Carl B. Grant. "I feel we've selected a fair jury in this case."

Among the jurors is an 18-year-old "ministry assistant" who confessed Friday that her aunt, after reading a newspaper account of the case, said she didn't know why they were having a trial because Mr. Wise is surely "a dead man."

The juror who works as a golf professional told the judge he saw a CNN television news clip this week announcing that jury selection was going on in Beaufort in an "office shooting case."

Both jurors said the outside comments would not sway their opinion. Presiding Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. said they could remain on the panel.

Court officials picked a jury in Beaufort County because too many people knew about the high-profile killings in Aiken County to be fair to Mr. Wise, Judge Cooper ruled last year. But with intense public interest, the judge agreed to bring the trial back to Aiken, where attendance is expected to be high.

This morning's activities begin with a competency hearing at 9, required in a death penalty case. Dr. Tracy Gunter, a state doctor, will interview Mr. Wise at 8 a.m. and reveal her complete findings during the hearing.

Jurors are set to arrive at 11 a.m. at the Aiken County Courthouse, and opening statements should begin shortly thereafter. For the expected crowds, 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan has organized a closed circuit television in a room outside the courtroom, which will show live testimony for any possible overflow crowd.

More than 100 people have been subpoenaed as possible witnesses, including many eyewitnesses from the Phelon plant.

If his conduct during jury selection is any indication, Mr. Wise will show little emotion through the trial. On Friday, he came dressed in his usual jail clothes, still sporting his Fu Manchu mustache, which he wears in a long braid. The defendant, who stands well over 6 feet, scribbled throughout the day on a legal pad and barely spoke to his attorneys.

Judge Cooper expects the trial to last through next week. But he will work daily, including Super Bowl Sunday, when he will cut the day short at 4 p.m. to allow jurors to see the big game.

During the jury's sequestration, SLED agents will censor newspapers and monitor telephone calls to family. Judge Cooper said he does not want jurors to hear accounts of the trial, only the evidence presented in the courtroom.

"But you will not be held incognito or held in some faraway land," the judge said to the jury.

Before they were taken to Aiken, jurors were told to surrender any cellular phones or beepers. They allowed one man to take his lap-top computer, but he will not be given Internet access.

Mr. Wise is charged with four counts of murder, three counts of assault with intent to kill, four counts of possession of a gun while committing a violent crime, and burglary.

Sheryl Wood, 27; David Moore, 30; Leonard Filyaw, 31; and Charles Griffeth, 50, were killed in the shootings. Those who were wounded are Jerry Corley, John Mucha and Stan Vance.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.